In Theaters: It Might Get Loud
There are exactly two audiences for It Might Get Loud, the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim. One comprises aficionados of the electric guitar -- the casual, seasoned and even professional musicians whose primary instrument is profiled here. The other is composed of fans of electric guitar heroes Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, whose own philosophies and styles offer a vehicle for Guggenheim's exploration. Fortunately for him, those are fairly vast global demographics. Unfortunately, for all of Loud's access and ambition, they're both fairly underserved.
Not that you can't get into White rigging a slide guitar out of nails, a wood plank, one piano wire and a Coke bottle -- a telltale bit of ingenuity that Guggenheim opens with, and one that segues dependably to each of his subjects' back stories. The Edge indulges an unprecedented journey down memory lane, which happens to intersect with the corridors of the Dublin school where he met his U2 bandmates in the '70s. Page, who's lost a step from his white hair down, nevertheless strums his air guitar to the strains of Link Wray's influential classic "Rumble." Has Page still "got" it? Well sure, if you mean imagination, each man's stock in trade and the natural source of their musical innovations.
Guggenheim counts on you knowing plenty about those strides going in, though. The director, who won an Oscar for capturing another well-known performer at the top of his game in 2006's An Inconvenient Truth, presents the trio as virtuosos of their forms whose ideas transcend the call-and-response of stadium rock. But ultimately rock is the idea -- a religion, really, with high priests in its respective guitar, bass and drum orthodoxies. And if you're not a U2 acolyte, then demo tapes of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and other early work won't necessarily sustain you until you're back to Page or White. Their own meandering technical asides -- apart from the curio of White composing a song on-camera in about four minutes flat -- aren't revelatory enough for either the newcomers or the true believers.
That's to White's advantage; when he proclaims (and clearly lives) an ascetic style of six-string worship, we tend to believe him whether it's our church our not. Technically, however -- maybe even intellectually -- he's the least qualified guitar player in the film. The "struggle" White invokes against his instruments doesn't wield half the texture or authenticity of his sub-gutter blues themselves. Yet when the Edge unveils the guitar rig responsible for arguably the signature sound in contemporary rock and roll, the all-too-brief listen (and forget about a peek inside the sanctuary) deflates the cross-section of viewers who know what a missed opportunity Guggenheim had.
On the other hand, the filmmaker intercuts footage from a Hollywood soundstage where the guitarists' power summit cycles into a gabfest/noodling jam session where you can almost smell the crap in White's pants. Talk about a struggle. This meeting of the minds is part stunt, part experiment, all spectacle -- just the kind of outgrowth you might expect from an instrument that's enabled so much of each over the years. You can't help but clap -- likely with your watch-hand down, checking the time. It's not that you're not a good audience. It's just that you can never quite know if you're at the right show.