Sunday, July 26, 2009

It Might Get Loud [movie review]

* Gala Premiere at Ryerson Theatre, Toronto International Film Festival, September 5th, 2008

* Limited North American theatrical release in August 2009, DVD release date TBA
(I wrote the following review for my brother's blog in September '08)
It Might Get Loud was conceived by producer Thomas Tull (An Inconvenient Truth) as a different take on the music documentary, with a focus on the guitar itself via three conduits of its possibilities: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs). If you’re saying to yourself “one of these names is not like the others” you’d be in line with my way of thinking pre-screening. Although I’ve always found him an interesting personality and original talent, I’ve never latched onto White’s music – probably because his voice grates on me. Still, I acknowledge him as a good guitar player but really…in the company of The Edge and Page? This was one reason I was even more compelled to see the film and ultimately, his inclusion is an inspired “casting” choice. Page and The Edge are certainly the most influencial and significant players of their generations and White proves a worthy representative for this generation’s guitarists, in addition to steering the tone away from something that could have wilted into shallow rock-God idolatry.
The movie is framed around a one day summit of the three filmed in January of this year where they meet, exchange ideas, jam and recount their influences. Most of these moments are quite compelling, particularly when they pick up the instruments and jam on some of the artists’ signature songs (U2’s “I Will Follow”, Zeppelin’s “In My Time Of Dying” and “Whole Lotta Love”). The latter song provided my favourite moment: as Page starts the riff you see The Edge get a little closer to him and the look of joy on the U2 guitarist’s face is unmistakeable. It’s nice to know that even living legends can get swept up in fanboy moments like the rest of us humans. The trio’s rough take on The Band’s “The Weight” (which concludes the movie) falls a little flat, though.
Interspersed around these summit segments are old performance clips and separate fascinating interviews at the subject’s homes, studios and historical sites from their careers. Page takes us on a brief tour of Headley Grange in England, the house where some of Led Zeppelin’s best work was created and recorded and also delights in going through some of his large record collection at his home. He puts on Link Wray’s “Rumble” and proceeds to comment on the minutiae of how much tremolo effect is used at a certain point in the song while playing air guitar like a little kid in his bedroom. The Edge is shown recording new U2 tracks, digging through an old box with rough four-track demos of classics like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and also visiting the Mount Temple high school in Dublin where the band formed. A rare tour of the school’s hallways stops at points of interest like the exact bulletin board where drummer Larry Mullen Jr. posted an ad in 1976 looking for musicians to form a band (that would turn into U2), as well as a small classroom the group rehearsed in on a regular basis (after moving all of the desks to one side of the room).
Visually, the movie is beautifully shot by director and producer Davis Guggenheim (who directed An Inconvenient Truth). One of the best segments is the short opening scene where Jack White is seen in a farmyard silently constructing a crude guitar out of some old wood, rusty wire, nails and a few other odds and ends before bringing the frankenstein instrument to life while using an old Coke bottle for a slide. “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”, he asks. The audience at Ryerson Theatre erupts with laughter and applause. Overall, the movie did a good job at highlighting the differences in style among the players. Page and White’s musical base is in the blues while The Edge obviously paints on his palette with many guitar effects that have carved out a unique sound and identity. Occasionally, the film tends to lose focus in terms of what information or interviews are presented at certain points, but there’s a lot of ground to cover in a little over an hour and a half so that’s forgivable. The bottom line is it certainly never gets dull. There’s also a minor narrative concept involving a boy playing “Little Jack” White that doesn’t quite work.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the day after seeing the movie that I realized the names Bono and Robert Plant virtually never came up (although they were represented during the performance clips). It’s pretty telling about what the movie is about that two of the most talented, charismatic frontmen in rock history are barely even a footnote here and they’re not even missed. With subjects this interesting, frankly, it’d be an artistic crime if the director hadn’t come up with something this watchable. Guggenheim has created a powerful endorsement for the guitar that offers a unique insight by some of it’s most prolific ambassadors which says more in it’s 97 minute running time than 100 hours of playing Guitar Hero on your PS3 can about what the instrument is all about. It even inspired this “lapsed” guitar player to pick up the old axe for a couple of hours after returning home from the movie.
(I allowed myself a few days of breathing space after viewing the film to write a review since my immediate thoughts were likely distorted by the fact that two of its principals, Page and The Edge, were sitting literally three rows directly in front of me during the world premiere screening, which my brother Jay scored us tickets to.)
Rating: 9/10