21 January 2010


Review: "It Might Get Loud"

If you're a guitar or rock music nerd (like me), you need to see It Might Get Loud. My friend Andrew recommended it to me a few weeks ago, and I was reminded about it on the 37signals blog. The film is a documentary featuring Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin), The Edge (of U2), and Jack White (of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs), talking about how they came to be guitarists, playing individually, and jamming together on a faux–sitting-room set built in a warehouse.

So if you're a guitar nerd, you might be off to buy the DVD right now. Still, it's worth knowing why this is not just some self-indulgent guitar wank-fest, and why it's also worthwhile for general music fans too.

No doubt Page, Edge, and White are three of the most influential and popular electric guitarists of the past 40 or 50 years. It would have been interesting to add, say, Tom Morello or Eddie Van Halen to the mix, but I think director Davis Guggenheim was wise to structure the film around a tripod of players—Page from the '60s and '70s, Edge from the '80s and '90s, and White from this past decade.

Each of them talks about individual songs that helped propel them to their current careers. Jimmy Page, resplendent in a long coat and silver hair just the right length for an elder statesman of rock 'n' roll, listens to Link Wray's "Rumble" crackle from a 45 rpm single—he jams along on air guitar and also turns a phantom tremolo knob on an invisible amp to demonstrate how Wray took that classic instrumental to a new level, and grins in sheer joy as he must have as a teenager.

The Edge recalls watching The Jam blast away the twee pop and bland '70s rock that dominated Top of the Pops on British TV in his youth. Jack White puts Son House's skeletal "Grinnin' in Your Face" (just vocals and off-time handclaps) on the turntable and says it's been his favourite song since he first heard it as a kid.

And that's the funny thing. White, who's 34, turned five years old in 1980, the year Led Zeppelin disbanded and U2 released their first album, Boy. For most guitarists of his generation, walking into a room with your guitar to meet Jimmy Page and The Edge would be terrifying, especially when they asked you to teach them one or two of your songs. But in some ways White comes across as the oldest of the group, a pasty-faced ghost from the 1950s or earlier, wrestling with his ravaged and literally thrift-store Kay guitar, wearing a bowtie and a hat and smoking stubby cigars, channeling Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James, building a slide guitar out of some planks, a Coke bottle, and a metal string, assembled with hammer and nails:

While Page and The Edge both grew up in the British Isles, and have never held any jobs besides playing guitar, White is from Detroit, and his hip-hop and house-music–listening cohorts in the '80s and early '90s thought that playing an instrument of any kind was embarrassing, so he didn't come to guitar until he'd already worked as an upholsterer. Somehow, though, if White and Page are rooted in gutbucket, distorted blues, it's still The Edge who seems to be coming from outer space. When he plays his echoing, beautiful intro to "Bad" alone on the soundstage, it's a sound neither of the other players could have created.

During the guitar summit, each of the guitarists teaches the others a couple of his songs. The Edge's first one is "I Will Follow," and it works better than any of the rest, in part because, as he explains, he often creates guitar parts with the absolute minimum of notes, so that they sound clearer, more distinctive, and less muddy when played really loud. And Page and White play really loud. Together the result is, as Jimmy Page says, "roaring."

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A good review--and generally reflective of what I thought of the film. Not remarkable in any particular way, but certainly entertaining.
Great review Derek, I'm happy to hear you enjoyed the movie also.

The choice of these three artists from the field of many candidates was perhaps more considered than it appeared. While all three are famous for using the instrument in distict and innovative ways, they certainly had different emotional drivers for the art they produce.

Page had an endearingly childlike enthusiasm when talking about the music he played and listened to. It was a source of wonder, based within the sound itself. He's a (possibly "THE") guitar geek in a way very similar to the way I was a D&D geek. Watching his face scrunch in various none to glamerous contortions told me that he plays for himself, and if an audience enjoys it too then that's cool, but incidental.

The Edge seemed to be more a sound innovator who uses a guitar at the root of his electroacoustic augmentations. His motive to play stuck me as a will to communicate with an audience, and thereby to share his messages of humanity and political action. If there was a better way for him to do this than to play a guitar, I expect he would.

As for White, he projected something of a darker tone. He seemed to be rebelling against.. umm.. other forms of rebellion? I got a bit lost about what exactly the chip on his shoulder was all about though I do find it engaging. He is the more image conscious, and wears costumes and attitude that help to market the musical product. That's not to diminish his sincere comittment to and talent for honoring and extending the American Blues tradition.

The use of these particular three artists defined several spectra of the complex space we refer to when we say "rock guitarist". Of course, It didn't hurt that I personally loved the music of all three before I saw the film. :)
There are any number of ways you can slice the relationships between the three players, which is part of what makes watching so interesting. Take each one's relationship to the blues:

- Page drew on it heavily, but incorporated it into a much bigger vision of a white-boy hard rock band pushing the boundaries of where that could go. Despite working with with a set of fellow virtuosos in Led Zeppelin, he wasn't afraid to be sloppy for the sake of the vibe.

- White sometimes takes a similar sonic approach, but in the search for a primal, ominous groove that's buried somewhere in the ground and in the past. He's focused far more on the grit of the sound, whatever the source of the noise. And he says that the whole White Stripes schtick with the red-black-white colour scheme and weird brother-sister-ex-lover vibe is a specific distraction from their existence as a couple of white kids trying to play deep, mean blues.

- The Edge has spent most of career explicitly NOT playing the blues, and as you said, he may be one of the most electric of all guitarists: he experiments sonically like Hendrix or Andy Summers, but from an Irish perspective and from a principle of extreme simplicity of original notes.
Great review. I have not seen it yet. But the trailer is great. I must buy it.
I love the ancient clip where young master James Page and his skiffle band are interviewed on television, and he's asked what he would like to do in the future. He answers "Biological research."

We are so unaware of what the future holds for us.

Also - the clip where Jack White starts bleeding all over his guitar - fake or real?
I'm sure it's real. Most guitarists have it happen at one time or another.
Thanks for pointing this documentary out, I watched it and found it really interesting. Probably the biggest point that comes back to me is Jack White's idea that you can force yourself into creativity by intentionally subjecting yourself to non-ideal conditions for making music. I.e. use a crappy guitar, do not have a bass player, place the keyboard too far away, etc. It forces you to come up with creative and novel solutions to problems. Interestingly I found similar comments from Edge referenced in a wikipedia article - apparently he didn't like the low notes on his Gibson Explorer, and it forced him to come up with new chord voicings. It makes me wonder if I can apply this philosphy to other aspects of life - e.g. try writing on a typewriter or longhand, or imposing some other arbitrary rule just to see what happens.

On the other hand, I got the impression that Jimmy Page's creative process didn't really begin until he set himself free of constraints, and was allowed to do whatever he wanted to do. This mostly consisted of getting a great band together in some sort of retreat and woodshedding non-stop.