When It Might Get Loud came out in 2009, I was just getting into Jack White’s music and at the peak of a rediscovered Led Zeppelin fanaticism. I loved the hell out of the idea of the film. Thesis: take three guitarists and examine the role of rock guitar in music, and what drives the players to learn and excel at it – starring Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge.
The premiere was in LA and when I phoned up for tickets, they said there were two premieres. I asked what the difference was, and she didn’t tell me the truth, which is how come I went to the second premiere that didn’t have Jimmy Page and Jack White in attendance. But never mind! I saw it another two or three times in the cinema, and then bought the DVD. I gushed about it several times on my blog, and other bloggers – cooler heads, one might say – did try to tell me it wasn’t very good, but I wasn’t having any of it.
I re-watched it just now. There’s things I still love about it. Jack’s laconic gunslinger outsider shtick, Jimmy’s palpable excitement at listening to Link Wray’s Rumble and his enthusiasm with the other players; Edge’s self-deprecation and brief Wanderer-of-the-Wasteland episode ending when the looming tangle of trees suddenly resolves into perfect rows with clear paths between them; the cows listening to Jack’s Diddly Bow; the slide guitar jam near the end; the White Stripes performing for a room full of puzzled Chelsea Pensioners. And although the three men seem to be mostly there because they were the three who answered the phone, rather than anyone’s idea of a broad selection, they settle into their roles as Jack (heart), Edge (head) and Jimmy (groin).
The cooler heads were right, however. The exercise was flawed in numerous ways. Neither producer Thomas Tull nor director Davis Guggenheim demonstrate an understanding of the guitar nor are they able to pull together a cohesive account of the electric guitar or its place in rock. The narrative used is a three-act drama, which means that at the top of the second act, someone had to have a crisis, reach rock bottom and be forced to develop new strengths to overcome adversity and ultimately triumph. This is a really strange thing to have in the middle of a factual film that is not a biography. It’s shoehorned in by bending poor old self-effacing Edge’s story, having him go into exile to learn songwriting skills. Which he does, but the sought-for emotional catharsis is blunted by its artificiality. As a more concrete example of a flaw, Jimmy’s first electric guitar is labeled onscreen a ‘Stratocaster’ even though it’s a Grazioso, and Jimmy was one of the least likely rock musicians to be seen with a Strat at any point in his career.
More obviously (and loudly) two of the three guitarists refuse to stick with the script. Jack’s first love is the drums, and he’s portrayed as switching to guitar mostly because his upholsterer boss Brian Muldoon already played drums and he wanted to jam. Apart from a fair amount of drumming, the bulk of Jack’s music in the film is thumped out on piano, so Guggenheim must have been overjoyed to get hold of the footage of him bleeding for his art all over a guitar pickguard. Jimmy loves guitars – literally – but spends a lot of time talking about producing music (mostly drum sounds) and plays a lovely mandolin bit. At least he can tell his spooky story about the guitar “intervention” when his first guitar turned up mysteriously in his house just as he became interested in music. Edge sticks to guitar, but his style – very simple riffs compounded into lacy ruffles by echo, delay and other effects – means that the film spends most of its time marveling at his equipment and following his guitar tech around.
The ’summit’, where all three guitarists meet for the first time, with their equipment set up around them, is evidently supposed to be a climax. In the event, all three seem a little shy, and you watch The Edge, ever eager to please, trying to keep the conversation going by asking Jimmy questions but aware that he needs to avoid the minefield of disallowed inquiries that have tripped up many a professional journalist and gotten them yelled at by an irate Page. (He steps in it with the Kinks question, but manages to get out with both feet intact.) They demonstrate one of their famous riffs each, teach it to the others, and then join in on the ultimate song of the movie. It’s… The Weight, that old chestnut, played on acoustic guitars, and there’s nothing about it that you wouldn’t see at any house party where three or more of your friends brought or found an acoustic instrument and downed sufficient beers to have a loose jam.
It’s worth watching, because we care about the people and what they have accomplished, but as a movie, alas, it’s strictly third-tier.