I wasn't a fan of The White Stripes prior to viewing their documentary film, Under Great White Northern Lights...and I'm still not. I find Jack White's singing voice incredibly whiny and grating, drummer Meg White plays at a sub-intermediate level, and their music, which incorporates a wide spectrum of elements drawn from punk, blues, country, and rock, is a little too ragged for my tastes (although "Seven Nation Army" ain't half bad). Toss in their calculated red, white, and black colour scheme, as well as the self-imposed mystique stemming from details like the duo's supposed brother-sister relationship (they're actually former husband and wife) and it's simply a package that just isn't for me.
So why watch a movie about them, you ask? Especially one that includes plenty of live performance footage? Well, I thought it might be an opportunity to give their music another chance, plus the concept behind the 2007 summer tour that the film documents was intriguing, in that the band wanted to play in every province and territory in Canada. Music video director and documentarian Emmett Malloy was enlisted to shoot the experience and he captures some nice footage, although the rationale behind alternating usage of either black and white or colour film appears to be completely arbitrary, which can be a little frustrating for the viewer.
Scheduled tour dates were accompanied by last minute, word-of-mouth performances at locations that were so bizarre that they soon became the talk of the tour. Those locations included a YMCA day camp, a pool hall, an in-service transit bus (Jack and Meg lead the riders on a version of "The Wheels On The Bus"), a fishing vessel, a classroom, a grocery store, a flour mill, and a bowling alley (where we see Jack bowling whilst in the middle of a song). As strange as those appearances were, the oddest had to be their (in)famous "one note show" in St. John's, Newfoundland. The film opens with shots of anxious fans on the street trying to figure out exactly where the band is supposed to be making their surprise appearance, before cutting to a gathered crowd of hundreds in an unnamed outdoor setting. Jack and Meg exit a van, walk to the stage, and then play a single note each before exiting to applause and the crowd chanting "one more note!". Is it a display of marketing genius or utter hubris? Perhaps both, as another chapter in The White Stripes book of enigmatic behaviour is written.
To fulfill the goal of the tour means having to play in some very remote areas, which is evidenced by the band's trip to Iqaluit, which has a population of 6,000 and is the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. While there, the pair visit a local seniors home and awkwardly interact with the Inuit elders, who clearly don't have a clue who The White Stripes are. They take in some of the local culture (including a sampling of raw caribou meat) and Jack performs an old blues song for the small gathering.
Interviews with the pair do a little to lift the veil of mystery that hangs over The White Stripes, but not much. Jack, energetic and outgoing, expectedly does most of the talking, with Meg contributing sparingly and usually with the help of subtitles, since she's so soft-spoken. Jack addresses the issue of whether or not he lets Meg talk during interviews and attributes her lack of verbosity to her introverted personality, which seems completely logical given the painfully shy persona she projects on screen. The last scene of the movie only conjures up more questions about the mysterious and fragile Meg, as she breaks down into tears while seated beside Jack at a piano as he plays the band's "White Moon". The extremely odd moment is never explained, with the credits rolling at the song's conclusion. It's likely no coincidence that shortly after the Canadian tour ended the band cancelled the rest of their world tour, citing Meg's acute anxiety problems.
Some interesting revelations about Jack's creative process are offered up in explanations of how he likes to make things difficult for himself onstage, such as keeping his extra guitar picks at the back of the stage (and not taped to his guitar or the microphone stand like most musicians), not using a setlist, using older guitars that are temperamental when it comes to staying in tune, and placing his organ in a certain stage spot that makes it a challenge to get to when he needs to access it. His rationale for the unusual methods is that he believes too much of a comfort level while performing stifles an artist's creativity and the show's energy. If that's the case, one could almost wonder if working with Meg's rudimentary drumming skills is an extension of that philosophy.
Diehard and even just casual fans of The White Stripes will find plenty of compelling viewing and listening in Under Great White Northern Lights. Non-fans? Not so much. The novel idea of the Canadian tour and its accompanying eccentricities simply isn't enough for them to invest 93 minutes towards.