Monday, June 22, 2009

It Might Get Loud (movie, 2009)

Ah, now I can sleep. I've seen the movie, and it is good.

Warning: spoilers. I know it's not a fictional movie and I can't spoil a plot point, but it occurs to me it would be just as well to see some of these moments for the first time on screen rather than reading about them beforehand. So my advice is just go see it when it comes out but click away from this spoiler-filled review right now.

Also I turn into a hippy at the end of the review and it's not a pretty sight.

It Might Get Loud is that marvelous thing, a documentary that doesn't look like a documentary. It's founded in fact but looks like a fantasy. Guggenheim takes an unpromising premise – musicians talking about music, which was once called the equivalent of dancing about architecture - and he paints events, pictures, movies and music around it, making an impressionistic collage.

There is a structure, of sorts. The two older musicians are initially portrayed as innocents and Jack White as the villain. He's in stage villain costume, derby hat, bow tie, cigarillo in hand, driving to the showdown and talking about a possible fistfight. The meeting between them, on a soundstage in LA, is intercut with their reminiscences of how they got here. Jimmy Page gave up gigging in 1963 to become a session musician – retired, as he puts it, before jacking that in to form Led Zeppelin. The Edge grew up in a bleak, economically devastated Dublin surrounded by sectarian violence. It's hard to say how Jack White grew up because it's difficult to believe a word he says. Until, that is, he plays Son House's Grinnin' in Your Face, and it's clear that the record taught him a respect for others that is fully as passionate and genuine as The Edge's memory of personal growth inside a milieu of car bombs and drive-by shootings.

At their meeting, working without any script, or as far as I can tell question prompts, the musicians play records and chat with the usual awkwardness of total strangers. But whereas most of us at a cocktail party will meet, talk with and then leave the others without any method of connection besides small-talk, these three are musicians. They show and tell their guitars and play a little of their own material. And then they play together, and their understanding of each other goes off the scale that mere mortals use. A stand out of the movie is watching the total awe on the faces of White and The Edge as Jimmy Page, who appears on the surface to be a white-haired pensioner, plays the riff of Whole Lotta Love with the same attack and fury he did in 1969. One jaw-dropping moment for me was watching The Edge teach Jimmy Page a riff. Skeptical of his spoken explanation of the chords, Jimmy at first doesn't follow him. After a moment he begins to play along. But he doesn't watch The Edge's hands. More than half of the time he's looking intently at his face, and only occasionally glances at his fingers. That said a lot to me. (Mostly that I'd like Jimmy Page to look that deep into my eyes, but that's another story.) Watching them feel each other out is exhilarating. You can't be sure it will work, possibly because it wouldn't work in a cocktail party setting. Perhaps musicians watching this know the ending already – that it is all going to work out fine.

Jack likes broken guitars, bent necks and difficulty. He wants to struggle with his instruments. He believes it makes better music. He makes an instrument on camera from a piece of wood, a coil-wound magnet, metal string and nails. It looks like scrap and sounds like Jack White. Jimmy loves his guitar, saying it is like a woman, running his fingers over the wood and gushing over the workmanship. The Edge doesn't really notice his guitar. He fixated on the first one he found and has since concentrated on the effects units that enhance it as a tool in hewing U2's sound. Jimmy Page shows us Headley Grange and takes us around the now well-furnished interior to explain microphone positions and the science of his production work. (It's only the historical footage of him onstage with Led Zeppelin that show how much of his music comes straight from his hips – that and his reference to the crescendo in Stairway to Heaven as 'the orgasm'.) There's archival footage if him with Robert Plant, playing with a couple of dogs, having fun on the lawn at Stargroves, a magical moment that doesn't seem quite historical, more mythical, as though it were shot in Rivendell.

All of them remember primal musical moments. For Jack White it is the Son House record. He's been trying to get that feel ever since, he explains. As he plays the vinyl and sits there listening, there's a shocking shattering of the thick glass he's placed between himself and us. It's as if he'd thrown the hammer he uses so dexterously elsewhere when making his primitive guitar; the barrier's down. For The Edge it's the explosion of punk in Britain in 1976. For Jimmy Page it's the badass attitude of rock and roll. He plays Link Wray's rumble and smiles with the feeling it produces in him still, fifty years later. And when Link Wray lays on the vibrato about a foot thick, Jimmy bursts into delighted laughter and so did the entire audience at this screening. It's a wonderful moment.

A little bit of film-schooliness creeps in as Guggenheim feels obliged to give each musician a little bit of the Dark Night of the Soul. Will I make it? Am I any good? We fail to bite our nails, of course, because we know they did. The Edge breaks through his block and explains that his epiphany took place in a managed broad-leafed forest. In the film the story is accompanied by beautiful shots of the trees in their regular rows, a million identical, leaf-scarred, silver trunks. Seen at one angle it's an impenetrable thicket; seen at another, it's a series of wide lanes carpeted by tiny flowers. The way forward is suddenly as plain as the Yellow Brick Road. As a metaphor for the release from despondency and as a visual for suddenly being able to see the wood in the trees, it's quite stunning.

Near the end, although not quite near enough the end to be a perfect counterpoint to the beginning, villain Jack White is redeemed. "You have to join the family of storytellers," he explains. And so he does. He joins it as the Howling Wolf of the group, filled with mystery, darkness, violent struggle, voodoo and metaphor. Jimmy has a Tolkien story, that of the king of the final days of glory of men, before the coming of the Dark Lord. And The Edge, guileless and almost impossibly open, is a William Gibson cyberpunk, working the transistorized tools of Akihabara under the glittering city lights to bring back the passion that was once found in the wood.

Hmm, I've turned into a hippy.


Julie said...

Haven't seen the film yet and it'll be months before I get a chance to, so I read on.
And now I'm's going to seem like forever till August comes around.
Wonderful review.

Peromyscus said...

Thanks! You'll love it, Julie. Jimmy is so personable and open that it's like being invited right into his house. Hang on in there!

Anonymous said...
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KaliDurga said...

Jack as Howlin' Wolf. I like that analogy.


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