November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jeff Katz

“It Might Get Loud” Doesn’t

 

When I saw that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, was also the man behind the rockumentary It Might Get Loud, an immediate sense of dread came over me. I’m not saying I don’t believe in global warming, or that I don’t wish Al Gore had been President for the first eight years of the decade, I’m just saying that An Inconvenient Truth is boring as fuck and has the same dramatic pull as the lectures I slept through in college.  

The problem with the Gore flick is the problem I have with the guitar god story of It Might Get Loud, but, hey, I’m not ragazine’s film critic, I’m the music editor, so on to my supposed field of expertise. 

 Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White are the three lords of the six-string chosen to represent their respective generations and, according to producer Lesley Chilcott, these were the top choices. Really? Jimmy Page over Eric Clapton? You sure about that, Lesley? Now let’s be clear, everyone is going to choose based on their own taste, but The Jeff Beck Group invented the Led Zeppelin sound a full year before Zep’s debut and Rod Stewart is an infinitely better singer than Robert Plant. Page didn’t discover anything.   

I’ve always had a hard time with Zeppelin’s iconic status because of that, but I played along with the conceit that Page is the jumping off point. I’m glad I did, because Jimmy comes across as the most real of the lot. Page, with his long gray hair, sure looks the part of a Founding Father, although when he rolls it up in a bun a thinner Mrs. Doubtfire comes to mind.   

Page has an ease of position the others don’t share. Walking through the manse at Headley Grange and casually explaining how Zeppelin’s fourth album was recorded comes across as a tour of Buckingham Palace with the Queen as your guide. Page is royalty, no doubt.  

Years ago I enrolled in The Bloom School of Jazz in Chicago. I was new to the alto sax and wanted to play jazz, which I knew well. What I learned there was that effective solos can be broken down into simple categories: dynamic range, tempo changes and rhythmic variety. With my limited skills, I was able to create quality music. Page, even with his obvious virtuosity, still keeps it down to those basics. His playing of “Ramble On” is a powerhouse of volume shifts with no special effects. One of the two highlights in the movie is Page placing Link Wray’s 45 of “Rumble” on the turntable and bursting into a big smile and laugh as he air guitars to Wray’s vibrato. It’s a joy to behold Page in heaven.   

It’s easy for me to quibble over the Page choice, less so about The Edge. In this scattered music culture we live in, U2 may be the last big band. Or, as Springsteen says, at least the last band whose members we can all name. Now, I also have my problems with U2, but I understand their place. They are the big dogs in town and have been for nearly three decades. To my ears, Bono is too histrionic, always a bit too much to take, and, yet, even with his over-the-top wailing, U2’s music is light on the soul, heavy on the machinery.   

The Edge makes no bones about that. He is an effects wizard, his signature sound the result of simple riffs all teched out. He clearly ponders where the guitar stops and the technology picks up. A little “emperors’ new clothes”, to be sure. Even when he explains how he plays an E chord with fewer notes than normal, I was struck less by innovation than with gimmickry. And when his panel of effects is shown in detail, that he taps until he gets to the correct programmed sounds for each song, it’s so odd and distancing, a veritable lip synch of guitar.   

When The Edge talks about the daily bombing during the “Troubles” in 1970’s Northern Ireland where he grew up, I wondered if the horrors of that existence didn’t result in a defensive pullback of emotions that seem to define his personality and playing. Though he speaks of how punk bands like The Jam and The Clash changed his life, those bands had a passion and fury in their music that U2 lacks. Even when he plays The Ramones’ “Glad to See You Go,” it lacks a certain intensity.   

Recalling the punk scene, The Edge aligns himself with the movement’s rejection of the self-indulgence of mid-1970’s rock (The Edgar Winter Group is submitted as evidence, and, by implication, so is Led Zeppelin and Page). You gotta be shittin’ me! The Edge condemns self-indulgence! Has there ever been a more pompously self-important, holier than thou band than U2?  Please. When The Edge plays a demo cassette of an early 4- track recording of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” it leaves me unaffected. The segue to a giant concert where the band play a full blown version is supposed to show how that little tape became this legendary song. Yeah, I guess.   

Jack White is the upstart, the novice who hopes he can trick the older guys into teaching him a thing or two. What’s clear is that White is the link to Page, and The Edge is the odd man out. Jack connects with Jimmy: the blues of Zeppelin and the blues of The White Stripes are one. Say what you will, but there are no signs of the blues in U2.   

White tries the hardest to earn his place, talking a lot of juvenile trash. “Technology is a big destroyer of truth.” Hmmm. “Ease of use is a disease you have to fight.” OK.  His repudiation of The Edge’s style can be summed up thusly — “so processed [it’s] not real anymore.” Perhaps because of Jack’s youth, he is the subject/victim of the movie’s biggest pretension, that of driving his 9-year-old self around and explaining to little Jack all the things he’s learned. That doesn’t work at all. What does work is Jack building a guitar with hammer and nails, using a board, a wire and a coke bottle.  Watch those hands! When he plugs in and plays, surrounded by a scene from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, it’s a small miracle.    

The movie does a fine job telling the individual stories of the trio, but where it fails, where the opportunity is missed, is in the relatively sparse time devoted to the three together on set. For everything I said before about U2, when Page, The Edge and White play “I Will Follow,” it’s way cool. “In My Time of Dying” is a slide guitar-fest that kicks ass. Though Jack was looking to be taught, he has a lot to impart. As he steals the song, they all laugh.   

The single greatest shot occurs when Page, alone, tears into “Whole Lotta Love.” The looks on the faces of the other two are a mixture of awe and true love. Whether that adoration is for the song, the riff, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page, or the power of the instrument, I don’t know. My guess is all of the above.   

The bonus materials give more of what I hungered for. The Edge inquires about “Kashmir” and Jimmy shows the tuning he played around with. I’m no expert on Zeppelin, so it was news to me that the “Kashmir” riff shows up at the end of “Swan Song,” an outtake. The two observe Page, but not with the same joy as in “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s not that sort of song, but still fun to hear.   

There’s some serious shop talk as The Edge asks what strings everyone uses. Page makes it interesting, explaining the use of banjo strings back in the day because British strings were notoriously thick and hard to bend.  Page asks White about “Seven Nation Army,” when Jack says a pal of his thought the riff was just OK, The Edge laughs.  Ol’ Edge is more open and engaging in these bits. I have to tell you when the three play The White Stripes’ classic, it stands up with any song in all their catalogs combined. “That’ll be five dollars,” says Jack, when done giving his lesson.   

What’s missing from the body of the film is this group dynamic. What did they think of each other, how did they influence each other? Again, in the bonus materials, The Edge tells a story of a classical guitar teacher in school asking him if The Edge-ling could teach him “Stairway to Heaven” so he can instruct the kids, all of whom wanted to learn the song. I would like to have seen more interplay and conversation.   

The Edge comments that every time it seems that the guitar is at an end as the primary instrument in pop/rock, it flares up again. Why does it endure? He doesn’t know. I do. People pick up guitars and learn to play and they all believe that, with a break or two, they’ll be Jimmy Page, king of the world, or The Edge, escaping from a little school surrounded by explosions, or Jack White, leaving his poor Mexican neighborhood in Detroit and breaking big. Then, all of a sudden, you got the dough and the booze and the drugs and the chicks and everything is cool.