Picky, picky, picky: It Might Get Loud (**1/2)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)

“My goal is to trick these guys into showing me their tricks,” confides a visibly nervous Jack White with somewhat forced bravado as he heads for an exclusive guitar player’s confab with U2’s The Edge and the legendary Jimmy Page, As our cocky young Mr. White comes to learn (along with the viewer) during the course of Davis Guggenheim’s new rockumentary, It Might Get Loud, “tricks”…erm, are for kids.

I will confess that, despite being a huge Zep fan, I was going to give this one a pass (at least until the DVD) because it offended my sensibilities that anyone would infer that the other two (talented as they may be) deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Pagey-but a friend shamed me into dragging my lazy ass out to the theater. White (singer-guitarist for the White Stripes and The Raconteurs), The Edge and Page may seem like odd bedfellows; but once I “got” the filmmaker’s intent, it started to sort of make sense.

Each of the film’s three subjects represents a distinct type of species within the genus of Rock Guitarist. First, you have The Primitive (represented by White). The Primitive is raw, instinctively expressive and spontaneous (any piece of wood with strings will do…plugged into something that makes noise).

Then, we have The Gearhead (represented by The Edge). The Gearhead is the antithesis of The Primitive; he is controlled and precise, obsessed with hardware and perennially tweaking his settings to match the elusive Perfect Tone he hears in his head.

Finally, we have The Virtuoso (Page), who can pick up any stringed instrument, from a mandolin to a Les Paul, and make it sing like a gift from the gods (or as Page dubs it, “the whisper and the thunder”).

Guggenheim inter-cuts separately filmed interviews, with each artist discussing his influences and techniques. The individual interviews offer a bit more insight than the summit, which feels staged and awkward at times; and when the three do play a few numbers together, the result is disappointingly pedestrian (it’s not unlike the discordant sonic wash of “Riffs ‘r’ Us” that assaults you when you stroll into a Guitar Center on a busy Saturday afternoon).

I suppose your reaction to the film will hinge on how big a fan you are of the individual musicians profiled. For me, Page has the most interesting back story and could have easily provided enough material to fill the movie’s entire running time. He’s kind of the Zelig of rock guitarists; over the course of his career he’s proven to be adept at nearly every style of music you’d care to mention.

As a teen Page played in skiffle, blues, and R&B bands, and by the mid 60s had become one of England’s most in-demand session players, playing with everyone from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to The Who and The Kinks (although it isn’t mentioned in the film, one of his most recognizable solos-for-hire is that fuzz-toned riffing on Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”). Once he joined The Yardbirds, the stage was set for the formation of Led Zeppelin, and the rest is History.

I don’t mean to belittle the fact that U2 is one of the most popular bands on the planet, or that Jack White doesn’t have his moments of inspiration; but in the context of the filmmaker’s intent, you do wonder what he hoped to achieve by bringing these three disparate stylists together. As a guitar player, I could compartmentalize what each artist brings to the table, but I was still scratching my head when it was over. Now, if you will excuse me, I think I’ll plug in and brush up on a bit of that “whisper and thunder” myself.

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