A good documentary never feels like one. Last year’s “Man on Wire” recounted a French tightrope walker’s most daring act across the World Trade Center in rich ‘50s noir. Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” took the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell’s death at the hands of his most beloved creature and teased out the moral ambiguity of man’s relationship with nature.
Davis Guggenheim’s “It Might Get Loud” is a good documentary. Guggenheim, the past curator of another bright narrative, “An Inconvenient Truth,” understands the pitfalls of poor docudrama (i.e. recent Michael Moore films), and avoids them here by morphing three music biographies into a nonlinear, intellectual treatise on creativity and artistic expression. The result is an inspiring and intriguing look at rock ‘n’ roll’s most trusted vessel — the guitar — as told by three of rock’s most talented stewards: Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.
The film is neatly segmented into chapters, titled with thematic quotes from each of the three guitarists. Despite the topic, there’s not much guitar strumming to be had here. There are a handful of scenes where the trio learns each other’s songs — an immensely entertaining peak — but the impromptu covers never evolve into something heavy. Instead, Guggenheim is more concerned with portraits of the artists as young men.
These reflections are carefully fleshed out through Guggenheim’s concentration on the places that matter to these guitarists. Jimmy Page shows us the manor in which “When the Levee Breaks” first took form. The Edge shows us the isolated cottage off Ireland’s coast where the first shots of “War” rang. Jack White delves into Motown history to explain the minority position of a white guitarist trying to pass off blues in a predominantly non-white, hip-hop heavy town.
The nostalgia reveals how place and personal aesthetic constituted these artists’ sound just as much as the strings on their guitars. The guitar is merely the messenger, but what emerges is the sonic manifestation of personal struggle and desire.
For Jack White, the Minimalist, the simple riffs and blues-hued beats reflect a penchant for simplicity and a longing for the past (the only one among the three still teething, it’s understandable why White’s personal aesthetic is more pronounced); for Jimmy Page, the Wizard, layered ballads and patterned solos reflect the complex sexual urges and dilemmas of the heart; and for The Edge, the Composer, the guitar is a gateway drug into a hazy electronica that brings a meaningful escape to the struggles witnessed and endured in 1970s Ireland.
The most telling lesson from this sonic meet-and-greet is the common thread that connects all three guitarists: a brief moment in each of their lives when they declared, “I have to play the guitar full-time.” Page recalls his days as a sound technician filling in as guitarist for myriad sessions, only to return home knowing that he could play better than any artist in that studio, while White, an apprentice upholsterer, felt he had no choice — once he learned the guitar in earnest, he couldn’t stop tinkering, and to cease playing would be to betray himself. All three artists reached a critical mass in their lives when playing as a hobby became limiting and only further suppressed pent up creative energy.
By using the guitarist as metaphor for a larger examination of the creative process, “It Might Get Loud” plays the right notes and illustrates the mental chronology that artist’s undertake in pursuit of some right-brain impulse.
You will leave the theater inspired and ready to jam.