Saturday, February 27, 2010

It Might Get Loud (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was It Might Get Loud, a 2008 documentary featuring three assorted rock guitarists from three different eras — Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge (true name: David Evans) of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes and the Raconteurs. The gimmick thought up by producer Thomas Tull and director Davis Guggenheim (who previously directed Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, which won him an Academy Award and briefly — all too briefly, alas — sparked a measure of concern in the U.S. population over global warming) was to have the three guitarists set up in a warehouse in Los Angeles and trade licks in what’s essentially a version of the “song swaps” at the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in San Diego and other similar events elsewhere in the country — only with internationally known superstars. But before that Guggenheim interviewed his stars with audio equipment only and used those tapes as voiceovers for standard-issue documentary clip footage highlighting their backstories — a conventional enough approach to music documentaries, but somehow it works here because the cuts back and forth between the three principals not only highlights their own personalities but also how much the music scene has changed over the years.

It’s interesting, too, that of the three Jack White is the only American and the only one who’s a singer as well as a guitar player — Page admits he can’t sing a note and The Edge actually has quite a nice voice (one of the highlights of the film is his slow, dirge-like solo version of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” which projects the song’s anti-violence message more in sorrow than in anger and makes the cut to a full-tilt stadium-rock version by the whole band, with Bono’s far more theatrical vocal, seem a bit lame by comparison) but he’s been overshadowed by Bono’s in U2. The film isn’t, and wisely doesn’t pretend to be, a comprehensive history of electric guitar playing, and it focuses on one style of the instrument — the one that began with the acoustic country blues of the 1930’s, specifically that of the Mississippi Delta players like Robert Johnson and Son House, which developed into the electric Chicago blues style of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf when they started playing the same licks on electric instruments. Hearing the guitarists (especially Page and White) playing alone without their bands behind them makes it clear just how much they owed to this style and how many of their licks are just recycled from Johnson, Waters and other classic blues musicians — though they’ve been creative enough to take the sounds beyond their models, mainly by adding distortion and other effects. The film also shows The Edge at work with his elaborate panel of foot controls that allows him to duplicate the sound of U2’s records on stage; he claims to have worked out a different set of guitar effects for each of U2’s songs, and when we see him punch the button for “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and the song’s title comes up on an LED screen built into his unit, we believe him.

Offhand, It Might Get Loud focuses on one very important electric guitar tradition — that of the Delta blues and how electrification both energized it and made it the basis for hard-rock and, eventually, heavy metal — and ignores another one, the line that extends from Charlie Christian and the jazz players he influenced (including Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Jim Hall and Joe Pass) through T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Wes Montgomery (whose experiments in octave playing were clearly an unacknowledged influence on Jimi Hendrix) and ultimately Hendrix himself, who got lumped in with the white “psychedelic” players from Britain (Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jeff Beck and Page) even though he had learned from Walker on the chitlin’ circuit, playing in bands that opened for him (virtually all Hendrix’ famous visual gimmicks — playing with the guitar behind his back, putting it up to his mouth and picking it with his teeth, etc. — were things he’d learned from watching Walker), and in essence Hendrix brought the two traditions together, writing songs like “Red House” in the Delta-blues tradition but also showing he could pick “clean” when he wanted to. (The “psychedelic” style as Hendrix encountered it in Britain when he moved there in 1966 was a white style based on Black roots; the “clean” Christian/Walker/King style was directly Black; and the dichotomy between the two reflects the dichotomy in Hendrix’ music — and in his life, caught between his own Black and American Indian roots and the white “psychedelic” audience that had powered his initial success after years of struggle.)

The contrasts between the three players featured in It Might Get Loud — Page the boyhood skiffle player, young session guitarist and ultimate superstar in Led Zeppelin (the band that converted the British blues-rock tradition to heavy-metal — earlier groups like the Who and Cream had approached metal, but it was the combination of Page’s guitar and Robert Plant’s relentlessly falsetto voice that really created the “metal” sound and laid the blueprint for all the power trios and quartets to come), the Edge the sound sculpturist (one effect this movie had on me was to convince me that a lot of the effects on U2’s records I had been convinced had to be synthesizers were simply the Edge’s gimcracked guitars) and White the man whose dual influences were Delta blues (in the movie he’s shown playing a track from Columbia’s 1960’s Son House LP Father of Folk Blues, the a cappella “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” and he says that’s the sound he’s been aiming for his entire career) and punk rock (less in his playing than in his singing and approach to songwriting) — are obvious but understated, and Guggenheim seems more interested in what the musicians have in common than in what separates them.

White’s backstory is particularly interesting in that he describes growing up in Detroit in the early years of this century, at a time when the guitar had ceased to be an icon of cool — indeed, not only did he grow up in a mostly Latino area but by his teen years rap had so totally taken over from rock as youth’s most popular music that you were looked down on if you actually played an instrument instead of rapping or doing beats with turntables. (In this regard the movie is an odd counterweight to the rap documentary Copyright Criminals, which depicts rap as an insurrectionary movement created by people who couldn’t play instruments because they couldn’t afford them, so they figured out another way to create music.) It Might Get Loud is also fascinating for Page’s backstory — it mentions his early success as a session musician (which he said he took up as a career because he was tired of the life in a scuffling touring band, driving from gig to gig in a van, only to get bored because he was literally playing Muzak — his odyssey from band sideman to studio musician to bandleader and superstar oddly seems to track Benny Goodman’s similar progression 30 years earlier!) and claims that he played on Shirley Bassey’s record of the theme from the James Bond movie Goldfinger — which means, as an contributor pointed out, that all three of the musicians in It Might Get Loud have played on James Bond title songs: the Edge was on the theme to Goldeneye and Jack White on Quantum of Solace.

He also mentions his much-talked about studio work with some of the early British invasion bands, including the Kinks (though Ray Davies insisted in his autobiography X-Ray that the solo on the Kinks’ breakthrough record, “You Really Got Me,” was by his brother Dave Davies, not Page) — oddly it doesn’t mention his work with Van Morrison’s first band, Them (in fact both Morrison and, of all people, Donovan were approached to be Led Zeppelin’s singer before Plant took the job — and the Them track “Mystic Eyes” is probably the best indication we have of what Led Zeppelin would have sounded with Morrison, just as the single “Goo Goo Barabajagal”/”Trudi” Donovan made with Jeff Beck is as close as we’re going to come to an indication of what Zeppelin would have sounded like with him).

It Might Get Loud is a fascinating movie thanks not only to the intrinsic interest of its subject matter (including scoring coups like taking The Edge back to the Mount Temple Comprehensive School, where U2 was born from an ad posted to a bulletin board in the hallway and where they played their first gig, standing on a concrete block and tossing off three songs during lunch break) but also to director Guggenheim’s strategy of balancing various elements so it’s not just a music documentary and not just an account of a jam session, either — it cuts artfully back and forth between them, though the jam footage we get is compelling enough I can’t help but wish Guggenheim and his producers had edited it together for a feature-length film in its own right and put that out as a second bonus DVD in the same package. It’s also ironic that a movie dedicated to the power and scope of the electric guitar as an instrument ends with a sequence from the jam session of the three players going to work on the Robbie Robertson song “The Weight” — and all playing acoustic guitars.

The film tries to make a case for the viability of the guitar as an instrument and the potentials left to be discovered in it — it points out that Guitar Hero, which lets you use a toy instrument to pretend to be “playing” the greatest songs by the greatest bands, is the world’s most popular video game (though I suspect a lot of those sales are powered by baby-boomers and Generation-X’ers who have long idolized these musicians and wanted to pretend to be them — I don’t have any information to back this up but I suspect the sales of Guitar Hero skew older than those of most video games) — though I’ve long suspected that after the onslaughts of rap and old-fashioned pop, rock has essentially become to the 21st century what jazz became in the 1950’s: still popular (and profitable) but no longer at the epicenter of music culture, and still attracting young musicians but no longer having the “cool” factor it once did (as Jack White’s personal story makes clear).

The film is a finely honed documentary that manages to avoid the sort of boring schoolmaster-ish presentation of a lot of music films, and though it doesn’t present complete performances of whole songs start to finish (one of my ongoing frustrations with the music-documentary genre as a whole), I miss them less than I would in a more straightforward presentation of each player’s career. The film was compelling enough that Charles and I went through some of the DVD “extras,” including deleted scenes (of which by far the most interesting was an exploration of how Page wrote the Led Zeppelin song “Kashmir,” though for some reason the music in the deleted scenes was mixed and mastered much louder than it had been in the body of the film — well, they warned us it could get loud!) and a 40-minute press conference given at the Toronto Film Festival in which Guggenheim, Page, Edge, White and producer Tull all spoke.

These aren’t the most articulate people in the world (of the three guitarists, Page seems the most at ease at a press conference) but it’s nice to see them in this relatively low-keyed setting and it’s also fascinating to see how many times — three — Page got asked if there would be a Led Zeppelin reunion. The first time he ignored the question completely and the third time he finessed it with a say-nothing-but-make-it-sound-like-you’re-saying-something response a politician would have envied. Apparently the big stumbling block is Plant — so much so that in 2008 and 2009 Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Jason Bonham (son of the original Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose death in late 1980 officially ended Zeppelin’s career as a band) were auditioning other singers with the idea of doing a tour that would include new material and Zeppelin songs, only to abandon the idea when they couldn’t find anyone they liked. Plant agreed to the one-shot Zeppelin reunion for the 2007 memorial concert for Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun at the O2 arena in London (the one where Michael Jackson’s comeback concerts were to have taken place if he hadn’t died before he had a chance to give them) but begged off because he’d just finished his album with neo-bluegrass star Allison Krauss and wanted at least a year to tour with her in support of it — and according to Page’s interview in the February 2010 issue of the British music magazine Uncut, Plant has just finished another album with Krauss and is going to keep performing with her rather than sign on for a Zeppelin reunion — which, given that Plant no longer has the killer falsetto that was his trademark with Led Zeppelin (and in his post-Zeppelin work has been quite savvy in writing around the voice he actually has rather than the famous one he used to have), is probably just as well.