Thursday, May 13, 2010

It Might Get Loud

I watched It Might Get Loud last night instead of doing my homework. 'Twas time well wasted.
This film puts an interesting spin on the Rock & Roll documentary by featuring three guitarists spanning three generations; Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs) and asking them to discuss not only their personal journey to rock & roll stardom but their relationship with the electric guitar. They discussed their childhood influences and the deeply personal experience of finding, making, or being given their first guitar. The film intersperses footage of iconic performances of the Clash, The Ramones, Link Wray, Lonnie Donegan, Woodie Guthrie, & Spinal Tap to name a few.
Whenever discussing the electric guitar, especially during the 60s and 70s, the evolution of technology plays a pretty central role and this discussion, edges on geekiness, if you can ever call Jimmy Page "geeky." I'm not deeply savvy myself on music technology especially that of the electric guitar, I'm an acoustic musician in head and heart, but you have to appreciate the inherent artistry of the craft. Watching The Edge peer at a blue computer screen in the dark, Jimmy Page talk about hanging microphones from the stairs at Headley Grange, or Jack White fashion an electric guitar out of a board, a coke bottle, and a bit of wire and you begin to understand that as much or more creativity happens between pickup and amplifier as happens on the strings themselves. And this obsession, the hours spent fiddling with electronics and experimenting with effects, is all to find a way to manifest the "sound in my head," as The Edge puts it, whether that means his complex layering distortion upon delay effects to create another phantom guitar sound or Jack White's fierce pursuit of raw simplicity.
One of the most interesting part of the film was seeing the widely different backgrounds of the three guitarists. Jimmy Page, the indisputable patriarch of the group (and certainly not because of his age), developed into a universally accepted Master, not only of the electric guitar but of rock & roll itself, in a surprisingly ordinary way. He admits that he never dreamed of making a career out of music and instead had aspirations of studying biology or oil painting even attending an art college. His natural talent for the guitar, discovered while playing in a skiffle band, was initially just a way to make a living as a session guitarist. He eventually broke away from the studio in order to give vent to his own creativity. Regardless of his position in the hall of fame, he speaks of his art in a very matter of fact sort of way, almost completely devoid of the often pretentious transcendence that characterizes so many artists. His humility is apparent and surprising as the three perform an impromtu rendition of "The Weight." "I don't sing," he says with just a touch of nervous embarassment. But one can have no doubt, watching his impish smile as he plays air guitar to "The Rumble," that this is a man who simply loves the guitar.
Jack White, on the other hand, evokes images of a monk (or Indiana Jones) in pursuit of a kind of rock & roll nirvana. His music reflects a deep spiritual groaning which is apparent in or perhaps because of his love for blues and roots music. The youngest of 10 children, many who were musically talented, his search for identity and individuality initially made him resistant to the guitar because, "everyone plays the guitar." In his first band, the aptly named Upholsterers (they were all, in fact, upholsterers), he played the drums. Throughout his other musical projects, the White Stripes and The Raconteurs, he did make the transition to playing the electric guitar and the piano but still expressed an almost disdain for the instruments which, to him, obscured the music rather than create it. As a result, he is continually creating barriers or upseting processing in order to find a fresh perspective or challenge his creativity. Honesty, rather than perfection, is his goal. In perhaps the most revealing part of his story, Jack sits in rapt attention listening to Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face," which has no instrumental accompaniment at all, just Son's own off-beat clapping. After the song ends he sits in silence a moment, then looks up and says simply, "That was my favorite song. It still is."
Of course the real reason I watched this film was The Edge as I am apologetically enraptured by every facet of the gift that is U2. His own story is, again, unique from the other two. While Jimmy Page's story is humble and very nearly organic and Jack White's is born of the artist's inner struggle, The Edge was baptized into music by fire. The Dublin of his youth was violent and precarious and music was an escape, a haven. As he said, "there had to be more" then such arbitrary destruction and despair. His insecurity over his identity as a songwriter or "just a guitarist" mirrored the tumult in the streets around him. In particular, the story of the evolution of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," which he wrote, is deeply moving. After you hear the story and watch footage of the after-math of bombings in Dublin, there's a clip of the Edge singing it in such a stark, nearly acoustic way that it just breaks your heart. If you know me at all, you know that I love Bono, but it was so very right to see The Edge stand under a lone spotlight showcasing his talent and artistry as a songwriter which is a bit difficult with a frontman with as big a personality as Bono.
Despite the three different stories of ascension, all three manage to embody the artist's struggle to discover and be faithful to his own voice amid social, political, and cultural pressures as well as the fight to be interpreted correctly. All describe a love-hate relationship with their audience. Page says that he finally stopped reading music papers because they completely missed the point of what they were doing. Describing his response to This is Spinal Tap, Edge says, "I didn't laugh, I wept because that's how it was." And Jack White admitted that the black, red & white aesthetic of The White Stripes and many of it's musical effects were largely a diversion to distract audiences from what was "really" going on onstage which, it seems, was Jack's own pursuit of an unadorned musical truth.
Succintly, it was very cool. While the documented trips down each artists' respective memory lane is insightful and listening to some of The Edge's EP's complete with Bono yelling time in the background is stinking awesome, the rich chocolate center of the documentary is the footage of the three men sitting on some couches in the middle of a warehouse talking and jamming a bit. When you strip away their backgrounds and philosophies they're just three guys who love their own music and respect that of the others' although both Jack and The Edge are outed just a bit by the sheer delight and awe that creeps into their faces while Page rips through "Whole Lotta Love." They share secrets and tricks, trade slide solos on "In My Time of Dying" sending the viewer into rabid ecstasy, yet still manage to come off as guys you know or would like to. You should definitely give it a view, if only to watch freaking Jimmy Page, who is remarkably humble and normal, jam with Jack White, who is marvelously pasty and avant garde, and the Edge, who is predictably beanie-clad and has a pretty awesome voice himself.

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