From the opening scene–which shows Jack White on a ranch building an electric guitar from planks of wood, a coke bottle and one wire, then plugging it into an amp and using the head of a socket wrench as a slide–the subject matter of It Might Get Loud is clear: the work and craft of playing electric guitar, not the success or celebrity of the guitarists. The three protagonists of the film–Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White–have certainly achieved success and celebrity but the focus here is on these men and their instruments.
For much of the movie director Davis Guggenheim, best known for An Inconvenient Truth, makes you forget that you’re watching something from the formula-ridden genre of music documentaries. Page, the Edge, and White are open and generous in their interviews, which are often surprisingly intimate: the Edge playing early 4-track demos in his kitchen; Page in his home, playing air guitar to his favorite records; White dashing off a composition and then recording it for the camera in a ramshackle house in rural Tennessee. It Might Get Loud weaves together the stories of the three individuals, including some wonderful old footage of each of them, with a recording of a day when the three met on a stage to trade stories and play together.
The film is at its best when it treats their stories as you would any type of work, charting the guitarists’ technique, their obsession, and especially how they choose, use, and build their guitars. Yet after having deconstructed the rock god myth and shown three people who came to the top of their profession through fortuity and hard work, It Might Get Loud builds the myth back up again and embraces the conventional arc of inspiration through epiphany. I’ll live out my days and not understand why there were so many nature shots as the Edge talked about political violence in Ireland. The filmmakers want to show that if enough layers are peeled back, these three different guitarists with different styles and of different generations will reveal the essence of the electric rock guitarist.
This approach is most successful when the three of them are together, as they stare at each other’s fingers while playing the same song, or as the Edge and White look at Page playing the opening of “Whole Lotta Love” like they’re seeing their newborn for the first time. Yet the differences between them come across just as strongly. The Edge says U2 started out of a desire to avoid the indulgences of long guitar and drum solos that Led Zeppelin had spawned in its imitators, and his own aesthetic of pure and clear sounds that can be manipulated through technology couldn’t be further from the Son House-revering White’s desire to use guitars that are broken. The three have much in common regarding their devotion and attention to the tool of their trade, the electric guitar, but it’s also just a means to create music, and in that way it’s also the starting point for their divergent paths.
It Might Get Loud will be released in the United States in August 2009 by Sony Classics.