Saturday, August 15, 2009

It Might Get Loud

It's no accident that Davis (An Inconvenient Truth) Guggenheim's latest documentary ends with the song "The Weight," since he admittedly (at a Q & A at Arclight Hollywood 8/15) felt under the pressure of previous great music documentaries like Scorcese's The Last Waltz. It also suggests the inherent tension in the documentarian between reality and art or artifice. A member of the audience pointed out that, while the film is specifically about electric guitarists--more specifically, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White--at the end, when they sing The Band's song, they're playing acoustic guitars. The questioner wondered whether that had been a directive; Guggenheim replied that the acoustics just happened to be around, but he also intimated that he had encouraged a break from all the "loudness."
And so this documentary is itself about its real subject: the anxiety of influence, as Harold Bloom termed it (The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 1973), and the tension and interconnectedness of art and artifice.

The title "It Might Get Loud" comes literally from the mouth of The Edge in the film, yet it is also indicative of the thunder that filmmaker Guggenheim was hoping for--both in the sense of the power these three musicians together might generate (I'm delighted to report that they most indeed do), and the the potential storm that the director was also brewing for the "conflict" of his film. Guggenheim told the Arclight audience that each guitarist was given a different route to the Warner Bros. stage where the "summit" was held, and each was asked not to have any contact with one another beforehand. Jack White, en route, kids on the square when he quips that the meeting will probably end in "a fistfight."

But of course it doesn't, although one can sense tension and discomfort in each of the men at the summit. You see it in The Edge's eyes, that wariness; you see it in Jimmy Page's reluctant admission that he doesn't sing; you see it in Jack White's defensive bravado. The tension and the guard are there visually in their costumes: Page's elegant black and white ensembles; The Edge's deliberately casual-protective wool cap and leather jacket; Jack's ties, suspenders, and bluesman's hat (and his overall youthful search for an identifying look, which he talks about with regard to The White Stripes' candycane red signature). But among all three guitarists there are moments of mutual humility and admiration, when the guard goes down, and those moments are wondrous to behold. (The Edge even acknowledges that he was playing the wong chord during their rehearsal.) It's fitting that the musicians truly come together in a more quiet collaboration at the end.

Why were these three chosen? Well, there was clearly much logic and deliberation involved. Guggenheim quipped that Jimi Hendrix was his first choice, but since Jimi was unavailable....It's obvious that Guggenheim was aiming for a generational mix as well as artistic diversity and potential "conflict." The Edge talks of seeing "This Is Spinal Tap" (we are treated to a clip showcasing Michael McKean's Lycra'd butt), of which The Edge says, "I didn't laugh; I wept," for it was all too real, he felt, of the music scene at the time, which U2 sought to escape and transcend--of bands like Page's Led Zeppelin. And Jack White scornfully speaks of the influence of electronics and technology (represented by The Edge) as something against which the musician must constantly "struggle" (in one scene, White's fingers literally bleed as he plays).

At the top of the film, Jack fashions a crude electric guitar out of Coke bottle and a piece of wood ("Who says you need to buy a guitar?"), but The Edge later reveals that he and his brother also made an electric guitar from scratch when The Edge was 14. Jack apparently has disdain for The Edge's sonic architecture created with mind-boggling electronic acoutrements (and a tech assistant to adjust the seeming hundreds of knobs and switches for every song). Yet it is Jack who is the master of artifice here, the Raconteur who spins the biggest yarns (e.g., that White Stripes bandmate Meg White is his sister, when in fact she's his ex-wife, whose last name he took--his real name is John Anthony "Jack" Gillis). And it is Jack who creates a 9-year-old alter ego for his segments of the documentary (and with the narrative thread it engenders, gives Guggenheim a symbolically wonderful/playful music-video type closure for the film). So much for Jack's worship of the raw and unenhanced. These artists have more in common than not. As the documentary shows, they've all been influenced by their predecessors and, in their own ways, have creatively incorporated and outdone them by making something original--illustrating Bloom's premise.

As Keats and the other Romantic poets posited, the ideal is accessed through the real. For guitar heroes, what seems like artifice and posturing is a way of taking the real to the level of the ideal. It's as Yeats wrote in "Adam's Curse": "...A line will take us hours, maybe;/But if it does not seem a moment's thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught." A poet's job is artifice, but it must seem effortlessly real. And when the line does sing, when that guitar does weep, gently or loudly, it is real, and it is art.

In this documentary, it is Page who seems to have best achieved that state of Keatsian Negative Capability. While he doesn't always seem comfortable with the camera on him, overall he projects a state of grace and integration. Aside from some performance footage with Meg White, there are no women in the film (Guggenheim deliberately did not want this documentary to be about the musicians' lives outside of their music), so it's lovely when Page talks of the guitar as something you caress, like a woman, and it's a pleasure to watch the sensuality of his movement as he plays, when the dancer really is indistinguishable from the dance.


  1. I wasn't to impressed with Edge but Jimmy and Jack made this well worth watching.

  2. Is this at the end of An Inconvenient Truth? I have yet to sit through it...

  3. Mou, It Might Get Loud is a completely separate film from the same director of An Inconvenient Truth. I think you'd like this one--I never saw the former.