It Might Get Loud
directed by Davis Guggenheim
(Sony, 2009)

"On January 23, 2008, three musicians came together to discuss the electric guitar." One sentence of on-screen text quickly provides the premise of this music documentary. But what follows in the next 100 minutes is hardly that simple. This video is a lesson in rock history, a primer in advanced guitarmanship and an amazing trip down a musical memory lane. It also offers pure entertainment for a wide audience of music lovers. Even if you don't know a Gibson from a Gretsch, you will find yourself enthralled by the mesmerizing moments of this film.

At first glance, it may seem as though the "three musicians" comprise the oddest of assortments. Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds/Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (White Stripes/Raconteurs) are not regularly mentioned in the same breath. Yet all three are ranked among the Top 25 "Greatest Guitarists of All Time," according to a list recently compiled by Rolling Stone. The men come from different places (London, Dublin and Detroit) and are known for their distinctive styles.

These men also span a full generation of rockers. Jimmy Page (b. 1944) is the obvious elder trendsetter. (What beginning guitar player doesn't want to learn "Stairway to Heaven"?) The Edge (b. 1961) is a master of technological manipulations of sound without a lot of visual fanfare. And Jack White (b. 1975) is a nonconformist to the nth degree: a dark punk/garage band player who attacks the strings and to a certain extent disguises his own tremendous amount of musical talent and knowledge. Yes, each one is quite unique in his approach to his craft. But the three are connected to each other by that same 6-stringed instrument that many of the rest of us have picked up on an occasion or two. We watch, hoping to find ourselves in their experiences.

Archival footage and audio interviews provide background info on the three individual musical journeys. The stories are told by the men themselves. There are no dirt-dishing bandmates or girlfriends; and no reviewers or analysts to offer interpretations for us. We learn firsthand about their influences and about their first guitar encounters. And each man has a chance to examine his past. Page returns to Headley Grange, the mansion where Led Zeppelin's fourth album was recorded. The Edge visits Mount Temple School, which he attended with all of the other founding members of U2. White transcends time by leading around a 9-year-old version of himself: a boy he is continually teaching and passing along tips that he has learned in the intervening years.

The three also share with us selections from their favorite inspirational records. You remember records, don't you? Those good old 6- and 12-inch black vinyl discs that we used to buy in record stores? Here we see those artifacts still being listened to and still being valued. Through them, we are led to the roots of the various forms of rock music. We can literally understand where each one of these guitar players is coming from.

Interestingly enough, each man faced similar circumstances in musical crises. Each one reacted negatively to the generally-accepted music of the day. They may not have known which direction their own music would take them, but they each knew immediately what they didn't want to sound like. It took time and experimentation to figure out what was right. And there were turning points in each career when each player questioned what he was doing. Any creative artist in any medium can relate to that kind of struggle.

Intertwined with the three stories are scenes from "the summit" -- the time when all three men meet on a Los Angeles soundstage with all of their instruments at the ready. Without outside intervention or guidance, the guitar men are free to talk among themselves and to share songs and techniques with one another. They show off their favorite and first "real" guitars: Page's Stratocaster, The Edge's Explorer and White's Kay. We see up close the double-neck guitar that was developed so Page could play all of the parts to "Stairway to Heaven" in concert. We see the bank of electronic controls that can change The Edge's sound with a few taps of his sneaker. We can shake our heads at White's adaptation that tucked a microphone into the body of one of his guitars. And the most jaw-dropping moment of all occurs when Page demonstrates the power of sheer electricity by launching into the opening riff of "Whole Lotta Love." White and The Edge both beam in response.

The production itself is expertly done. Davis Guggenheim is the award-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth, and he knows a thing or two about shooting documentaries. His hands-off approach here makes the film truly a masterpiece. The resulting storyline seamlessly moves from one individual to another. Then it pulls back to put each one in the context of his larger musical realm. It becomes evident as the movie progresses that these three very different men have an awful lot in common after all.

It Might Get Loud can be enjoyed by a wide variety of viewers: from casual fans and music historians, to virtual "guitar heroes." It will find its most appreciative audience in fellow musicians, no matter what their instruments or abilities may be. They will find validation here on a number of levels. Everyone has insecurities and doubts in the creative field. No matter how much you learn from a book or from a record album or from an individual, you will still have to figure out some of the notes and the musicianship on your own. In time, you will come up with your own modifications and will discover your own possibilities. Just like these three experts did.

The movie concludes with Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White donning acoustic guitars and jamming together on a familiar song. Those in the audience who have their own 6-strings should unpack their instrument cases and should strum and sing along. This is a chance for audience participation and accompaniment, with a tune that follows an easy G progression.

And yet: even as we follow their lead, we cannot really be a part of this magnificent trio. Like the tech folk and the crew members who huddle behind the amplifiers in that final scene, we can only stand back in awe and admire the musical talents that are spotlighted in that small on-stage circle of light. "Bravo!" is too subtle a compliment for It Might Get Loud. It deserves a full standing ovation in every living room.

review by
Corinne H. Smith

5 June 2010

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