Sunday, October 4, 2009

It Might Be Incongruous

On the same night that U2 played another sold out show in Hyattsville, MD (with special guest Muse, to sweeten the deal), I was 25-odd miles away at the Bethesda Row Cinema, watching a new documentary that includes among its principals my second least-favorite member of U2, the Edge, whose nickname has infuriated me at least since I was twelve years old. What sort of movie, you ask, would feature the Edge and not Bono, a true Man For All Seasons? Well, the title of this new documentary is It Might Get Loud, and its subject is the cult around the electric guitar, or more specifically around three of its most famous practitioners: aforementioned Dave Evans, Jack White of the White Stripes cum Raconteurs cum Dead Weather, and Jimmy Page, who was a session player for a while in England in the 60s and later became the lead guitarist of The Firm with Whitesnake singer (and Nathan Sacks birthday-sharer) David Coverdale. Here's the trailer for those who are interested:

Generally, the idea is to get what people might consider to be the best guitarists of three loosely defined eras in rock history, get them on a sound stage together, and see what happens. If the relatively brief running time doesn't already clue you in, nothing really does. And that is the biggest weakness of It Might Get Loud, as far as I can tell, which is that the director Davis Guggenheim throws these three guys together and it turns out that, between the three of them, they really have nothing in common, and despite jamming on each other's music it is clear that they aren't really compatible as musicians anyway.

That's just one problem; another problem is the camera's tendency to frame Jack White as a ludditish man-out-of-time, an only slightly pomo artifact of authentic Delta Americana, which of course is a perception that White relishes, and one gets the impression that he did a lot of collaborating with the director so that he would be shot working on a farm, playing a rickety piano, talking about Claudette Colbert, etc. We can get to that later. The principle fact is that, between these three, one can certainly find similarities between two of them, but between the group as a whole there is basically nothing holding them together. Page and White are of course both heavily steeped in classic Chess and Delta blues music; White and the Edge are united by a common love for punk and post-punk, the kind of stuff that was popular in spite of Led Zeppelin; and the Edge and Page are known for their roles as being versatile musicians but essentially sidemen, while White is the one singer of the group who also functions as a front man for at least two groups (let's be honest: the Dead Weather counts as three).

But between the three of them, nothing. That may explain why an extremely small portion of the movie is actually devoted to their meeting and jamming: the gang takes a crack at each other's songs, starting with "I Will Follow," "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," "In My Time Of Dying," and finally ending with an inspirational group cover of the Band's "The Weight," which is notable mainly for some rather pathetic background singing on the part of Page, who is right to protest that he shouldn't be singing.

The rest of the movie fills in some background on these three men, and interviews them at length regarding their approaches to guitar-playing and how they dealt with being professional celebrity musicians. One's interest in these proceedings depends invariably first on whether or not you like the music of that particular musician, and furthermore whether you find his personality to be tolerable enough to yield a listen. While of the three men I would definitely consider the Edge the worst musician, he is in a way probably the most good-natured and least full of bullshit guitarist on display, and in fact many of the film's most enlightening and informative moments involve the Edge describing the formative years when U2 used to tried to bang out punk tunes in an empty classroom in Dublin. While I've never liked U2's music, it's hard not to admire that they've stayed with the same four principals since their inception, and the Edge seems suitably humble about where he might have been had the band not been successful.

Whereas Jimmy Page's best moment probably comes when he shows us the top of the exact staircase where John Bonham played the drum part to "When The Levee Breaks"--not that it has anything to do with guitars, per se, but even with Bonham gone, one looks at that empty space where a drum set once was, and can imagine just how explosive and powerful that moment may have been. Otherwise, Jimmy Page, who will always remain a legend in my book, doesn't have much in the way of illuminations to offer regarding his love of guitar-playing; his best moment comes when he puts on Link Wray's "Rumble" and tries to explain why that single seemed so epochal at the time. Poor Jimmy Page...everyone else is more or less capable of ignoring the fact that Page has done close to nothing save for the occasional reunion with Robert Plant, and he himself doesn't seem to think that his lack of work ethic is a hindrance or even a problem. Whereas his former band mate Robert Plant went on to do solo work of some repute, and at least tried to champion younger bands like Husker Du, and John Paul Jones is making the touring rounds again with his new group, Them Crooked Vultures (even with these thirty-second clips, I am really, really excited to hear that album).

And Jack White...look, I don't care if he is trying to do his best to look like he's in a Tim Burton movie. And you have to sort of expect that he's going to spend at least part of the movie bitching about the Internet or horseless carriages or whatever. What I can't stand is how affected it all seems. The film begins with Jack White on his farm jury-rigging a slide-guitar with a coke bottle and some pieces of wood, taking a drag of his cigarette and saying, "Who needs to buy a guitar?" after a brief and grisly-sounding noise attack. Of course, the obvious answer is that you can make your own damn guitar, but of course Jack White can't go as far as to make his own amp, which could indeed cost someone more money and isn't as easy to make. So as we know, Jack White's primitivism is an affected one that denies some rather obvious facts in a very rock star-ish way.

(There's a very Spinal Tap moment during an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where Jack White has been going on about the White Stripes' aesthetics and how in particular the number "3" is very important to him, and that extends to the White Stripes' guitar/drums/voice triptych. To which Gross asks quite rationally why, if they are so enamored with this particular number, does the White Stripes not have three members in their band, and White replies in a very "these go to 11" way that that wouldn't make any sense, then there would be more than three instrumental components).

Jack White claims he likes to push himself. He likes to say that he'll move an upright piano farther away from where he's standing so that he has to run to it faster. He claims that the human voice is the most honest and primal instrument there is, and his favorite song is "Grinning In Your Face" by Son House, which is just the sound of a human voice and House clapping for time. I'd really like to see White try to write an album with songs consisting of nothing but hands clapping. I'd like to see him try to play his own coke bottle guitar when he's onstage with the Raconteurs, instead of brandishing his custom Gretsch. Until then, maybe he should refrain from saying that technology is the enemy of honest musicianship.

Especially when you got a guy like the Edge, who is more than happy to admit that a lot of his tricks come from mixing and matching his sizable pedal collection. You'd think that would create some sort of friction between the two. Nobody mentions this obvious incongruity. When the three get together, they stick to chatting about where they got their first guitars, or how they dealt with those halcyon days of touring in a van.

There are also other sorts of juxtapositions that are really ill-considered, done in the name of preserving some continuity between three musicians who took very different paths to stardom. So, for instance, we get a moment where the Edge describes the terror and stress of growing up in working-class Dublin, where vicious religious warfare was claiming bodies by the day. The Edge does a good job of communicating the sort of distrust and anger that can sow in a young man with seemingly no future, and it does seem as if he had a legitimate reason to fear for his life. This is followed by a moment where Jimmy Page describes a similar crisis of conscience, except here he is talking about how annoying it was being a session player and having to make up guitar parts for commercial jingles and radio muzak. If you find it perfectly sensible to compare the stress of living in fear of being bombed with having to play guitar on radio jingles, maybe these sorts of montages will make sense to you.

If you're like me, the few moments where Guggenheim breaks out the archival footage will probably rank as the best in the film. I used to watch the Led Zeppelin DVD religiously when I was 16, so I already know all the Zeppelin stuff back and forth, but it's not the worst thing in the world where Guggenheim shows Jimmy playing the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" in full, and you have to figure, ubiquity or not, that is just a perfectly phrased melody if I've ever heard one. The Edge mentions a transformative experience watching the Jam, and there are also a few shots of other British punk bands like the Buzzcocks (playing "Harmony In My Head"!!!). As I was watching this, though, I was thinking, well, why not Paul Weller, then?

And why not get Robbie Robertson, a guy who's much better at talking about that kind of stuff, instead of Page or White, when they play "The Weight" at the end? I know Guggenheim doesn't pretend that this movie acts as a definitive statement on electric guitarists, but there's no reason to think that you couldn't swap out any of the above and replace him with someone a lot less annoying, more lucid, and probably just as popular. Why not get Prince, Robbie Robertson, and Malkmus instead? I can imagine several alternative It Might Get Louds that would probably serve this film's thesis better.

As a music documentary geek, I'd say this is sub-theater material, and is only worth seeing probably if you happen to catch it on VH1 Classic, which seems like an inevitable destination for this movie. Other than that, I would be wary.

Slightly-related corollary: Is anyone else really, really excited by the prospect of Them Crooked Vultures existing? Looks to be Songs For The Deaf+.


  1. It's a shame Jack White has retreated so far up his own ass. He always had weird affectations, but there was a time that those didn't get in the way of making listenable music (and were even kinda charming).

    Also MIA are his pop instincts, a key ingredient in a lot of the earlier Stripes stuff.

  2. Jimmy Page might deservedly get a lot of flack for stealing from old blues artists, but I can't think of a better example of a white person who plays into the stereotype of white blooze lover than Jack White. This movie only makes more clear how astounding his ignorance is on this issue.

    White seems to really think that the austere and primitive nature of those original Delta and Chess recordings was somehow an aesthetic choice on the part of the artists, as opposed to being financially the only viable method of getting this music out. He doesn't seem to understand that these same artists would likely shake their head at any claims of "authenticity," particularly in if it had anything to do with recording technology--they sang songs about being poor, miserable and misunderstood in part because music was one of the few ways that a black man at the time could free himself of his socioeconomic conditions. The fact that White feels a need to recreate this feeling by customizing old guitars and pianos to sound scratchy, out of tune, etc., is basically the musical equivalent of buying pre-faded jeans. I'm no sociologist, but it's behavior like this on the part of White that conjures images as old as Elvis, of white R&B players trying to appropriate the behavior of black musicians, with embarrassing results.

    On the other hand, I guess, he might be introducing Son House to people who might not know of him. Like you, I believe Jack White is a talented musician who needs to get his head out of his ass.