As music fans (and if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them), I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all had the experience of hanging out with friends, and fellow music fans, in our childhood bedrooms, our college dorm rooms, or in our apartments, and having a drink or partaking in some other spirit lifting activity, while talking about music and playing songs we love to each other. The conversation usually goes something like, “Hey, man, you gotta hear this,” and, “Yeah, that’s great, but have you heard this?” as song after song gets played. Maybe in our brave new world of mp3s, iPods and the broadband tubes of the interweb, in which you can send an email to your friends with a link to a website or torrent where they can download the entire remastered Beatles catalogue – in both stereo and mono versions – in less time than it’ll take you to read this review, things are different, but I doubt it. If anything it’s a difference of degree, not of kind, and I still believe that the sheer and visceral joy elicited by the experience of sharing music with friends transcends even the cold 1s and 0s of our digital present.
And this brings me to one of my favorite scenes from It Might Get Loud, the documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim, which features the all-star guitar triumvirate of Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), the Edge (U2) and Jack White (the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather). The film was released in theaters this summer by Sony Classics and appeared on DVD and Blu-ray just in time for the holiday season. In one scene the film takes us to a room in Jimmy Page’s pad that’s lined with bookshelves filled with records, cds, books and Led Zeppelin memorabilia. We see Page flipping through some 45s; he selects and lays on the turntable a copy of “Rumble” by Link Wray, and then we’re witnesses to one of the most personal and intimate moments in the entire film. Here’s the guy who used to hit the stage and melt faces with a double-neck Gibson in his hands and dragons sequined up and down the sides of his bell-bottoms transported before our eyes into a childlike state of joy and wonder, complete with goofy grin and all, as he merrily grooves along with a beloved and formative 50 year old recording most of the audience has probably never even heard of. What makes the scene even better and really demonstrates the humanity of this rock god is the tinge of vulnerability that Page evinces as the song comes to a close and he says, “Great, isn’t it?” with a hint of that uncertainty that we’ve all felt when we’ve played songs we love for friends and were unsure of what their reactions would be. Priceless. And this is just one of the many gems that are found throughout the film.
The film alternates between segments that focus on the individual guitarists talking about their musical backgrounds and their early influences, and what amounts to a summit of the three on a sound stage in which they hang out, talk about music and jam together. The film takes each of them back to significant places in their respective histories. For Jimmy Page, it’s Headley Grange, the former 18th century pauper house in the English countryside where Zeppelin recorded some of its most notable tracks, including “When the Levee Breaks” from Led Zeppelin IV. For the Edge, we visit both his high school, where U2 formed and played its first gigs, and New York’s music store Mecca on 48th street, where, while on a family vacation, he bought the Gibson Explorer that’s been in his arsenal ever since. For Jack White, it’s back to his hometown of Detroit, where he worked as a furniture-re-upholsterer and discovered the blues. The three musicians share various stories and foibles about their youths and early musical endeavors, and we even get to see them at work in their private studios. But the core of the film is the time the three spend together.
There are so many memorable scenes in the movie that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The film itself starts off with Jack White building himself an amplified string instrument out of a plank of wood, a metal wire, a coke bottle, a pickup and some nails. Later on the audience is treated to footage of a young Jimmy Page in his skiffle days and early footage of U2 playing live. We get to see the storage room where Jimmy Page keeps his impressive guitar collection and hear him jam out on “Ramble On”. We get a behind the scenes look at the recording of “Get On Your Boots” from U2’s recent No Line On The Horizon and a tour through the Edge’s NASA-sized effects rig. We also get a window into the creative process of Jack White, who composes and records a brand new song on screen. Pretty neat.
At the end of the day, however, it’s Jimmy Page who steals the show. And, seriously, the only way this movie could have been any better is if it had spent its entire running time focused on him. Carrying himself with all the grace and confidence of a veteran samurai, Page is the epitome of cool. The Edge, too, in his own laid back serenity presents a picture of calm and confidence. And even Jack White, despite being the youngest of the three and the one who is still in the process of establishing his legacy, manages to hold his own in company with these two rock luminaries. To be fair, Jimmy Page and the Edge need never play another note again, yet their places in rock n’ roll history are cemented. We’re still waiting to see where Jack White’s career takes him, but thus far all indications for his future seem positive.
But, again, you can’t escape the presence that is Jimmy Page. You get a real sense of the respect and awe with which even the Edge and Jack White regard him in the scene in which Jimmy Page demonstrates how to play “Whole Lotta Love” in front of them. While not a particularly difficult piece of music by any stretch of the imagination, “Whole Lotta Love” is nevertheless one of the most iconic riffs in rock history. The expressions on the Edge’s and Jack White’s faces are priceless: the look is a mixture of awe, joy, respect and the realization, “Holy shit! That’s Jimmy fucking Page playing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ right in front of us!” To be a fly on the wall…
Now, I have to admit that when I first heard about this movie last Spring I was beside myself with anticipation. It felt like the filmmakers had picked my brain in choosing the three guys to include. If there was a target demographic market for this film, I’m it. And I believe the choice of Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White was spot on. Growing up I can remember often waiting for my older brother, who had a good decade on me, to leave the house so that I could go into his bedroom and listen to his records, and when I say records I mean vinyl. His collection was modest, but to my preteen self it was a veritable treasure trove of classic rock: the Who, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Derek and the Dominoes, Jeff Beck, the Doors, CSNY, Boston… it was all there. But the cream of the crop was his collection of Led Zeppelin records – I swear I must have worn out the grooves on a couple of those. Sorry, bro. But this act of sneaking into my brother’s room and surreptitiously listening to his records was the origin of what would turn out to be for me a sometime obsessive association with music. And although as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed and broadened, I still have a soft spot for classic rock in general and an undying love for all things Led Zeppelin. There was something about the Led Zeppelin albums in my brother’s collection that made them stand apart from the rest. There was something about the sound of the music – an energy, a sense of excitement, and even an element of danger – that separated Zeppelin from the pack. Heck, there was even something about their album covers, which were cooler than those of any other band. I can’t tell you how much time I wasted obsessing over the different images on Presence, or turning the wheel on III while blasting those records on my brother’s stereo. Ahhh, nostalgia… In any case, I don’t think anyone would argue with Page’s inclusion in the film; he’s rock royalty and has probably been responsible for the sale of more Gibson Les Pauls than anyone else ever.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t around for Led Zeppelin and never got to see them live, but as a teenager in the 90s I did manage to witness firsthand the rebirth and reinvention of U2. One of the first albums I remember buying was Achtung Baby and I was blown away by the sounds that the Edge was able to get out of his guitar. He may not be the flashiest player around, but the Edge has consistently stretched the sonic boundaries of the electric guitar throughout his career and maybe never more so than on the three records U2 released in the 90s, the aforementioned classic Achtung Baby and its two follow-ups Zooropa and Pop, both of which received mixed reviews when originally released but which in retrospect were light years ahead of their time. Whether you love or hate U2, and, considering how annoying Bono can be, it’s easy to understand the hate, you have to acknowledge the impact the band has had on rock music and popular culture over the last 30 years. What other band has lasted with its original lineup intact for so long and has continued to produce music that’s relevant and fresh sounding? When you look at the band’s output from the early years of Boy, October and War to the classic mid-80s period of the Unforgettable Fire, Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum, the material in the 90s mentioned above and the three albums of the last decade, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon, not only is there not a stinker in the bunch, but each release has redefined the sound of rock music for its time. Compare this track record with that of, say, the Stones, who aside from Voodoo Lounge have been phoning it in for almost 35 years now.
Some people may quibble about the Edge’s inclusion in the film. To them, all I have to say is, are you serious? Who cares if he’s not the most technically accomplished musician in the history of rock? Does anyone even care anymore about the spandex-clad, speed demons who characterized late 70s and 80s rock n roll? Don’t get me wrong, I love me some proggy Yes, think Steve Howe is a genius and can even appreciate what the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai accomplished on the instrument, but at the end of the day I’d rather listen to the Kinks bashing out some barre chords than some cookie cutter shredder unleashing a flurry of sweep-picking arpeggios and divebomb squeals on the whammy bar. For me the best rock n’ roll comes from the artist’s heart and connects with the listener’s heart, and it doesn’t matter whether the artist is a virtuoso caliber musician or not. Music isn’t an athletic competition (then again, neither is figure skating, but I digress…). And just as Jimmy Page is responsible for the sale of so many Les Pauls, the Edge is probably singlehandedly responsible for the sale of more delay pedals than anyone else on the planet.
The third participant in the film is Jack White, who represents the current crop of rock music and who is probably the hardest working man in the music world at the moment, fronting the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, playing drums in the Dead Weather, collaborating with artists like Alicia Keys on the theme song to the most recent James Bond movie, running his own record company (Third Man Records) and appearing as a guest pretty much all over the place (he steals the show with his performance in Martin Scorcese’s Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light), …. er, except with Slash, it would seem. White came to prominence with the Whites Stripes at the beginning of the 2000s along with other indie bands like the Strokes during the garage rock revival which, if I might indulge in some mixed metaphors, swept through rock music like a much needed breath of fresh air at a time when radio was dominated by third generation grunge retreads like Nickelback and Creed, nu-metal acts like Staind and rap metal hybrids acts like the orthographically challenged Linkin Park. To hear the punkish raggedness of “Fell In Love With A Girl” blasting out your speakers was a shock – in a good way. Despite the rudimentary drumming of Meg, subsequent White Stripes releases proved that the band was no one hit wonder and included modern classics like the hypnotic “Seven Nation Army” and the bad acid trip of “Icky Thump”. It’s a bit ironic, and not even in an Alanis Morisette sense, that at the time this film was released Jack White was touring with his latest project, Dead Weather, in which he plays the drums. So much for marketing synergy, I guess. With his exciting guitar playing, penchant for crafting catchy hooks, retro-tinged yet innovative and forward-looking production sensibilities and, well, his downright ubiquity, Jack White has become the face of rock n’ roll in the 21st century.
So, Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White… not a bad group. I’ve seen some complaints online about people who were left out, but I think the filmmakers made a wise decision in picking this group, each of whom, they claim, was always their first choice. When you think about it, who else should have been in it? Jimi Hendrix? Of course, but he’s dead. Eric Clapton. He’s become a bit of a wanker, no? Jeff Beck? Arguably, but most people these days have probably never heard of him – further proof that the world we live in is anything but just, although with his recent Hall of Fame nod and the release of Performing this Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s, he is undergoing something of a renaissance, and a much deserved one at that. David Gilmour? With his being a part of Pink Floyd and his solo work, especially the recent On An Island album and the two subsequent live releases Live at the Royal Albert Hall and Live in Gdansk it’s tough to find a reason to leave him out, but I guess Jimmy Page does trump him in the sense that Jimmy Page was Led Zeppelin in a way that Gilmour was not Pink Floyd. Eddie Van Halen? While he was certainly a tremendous influence on legions of guitar players throughout the 80s, I would argue that ultimately his style proved to be a fad, and that the contributions that the Edge made to the instrument have had a longer lasting impact. Slash? He’s another tough one, I think. In one sense he is the last of the true “Guitar Heroes”, a lineage that stretches back to Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix… heck, even all the way back to Robert Johnson. Unfortunately for Slash, and even for someone like Eddie Van Halen, a funny little album called Nevermind came around and rewrote the rock n’ roll rulebook, shifting the focus away from flashy instrumental playing and on to songwriting. And here’s where Jack White really shines. He’s succeeded in making the guitar relevant again and in reviving the role of the guitar player. John Frusciante? He’s great, no doubt, but despite the popularity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, especially since his return to the band, Frusciante tends to remain a fringe figure, largely by choice. Johnny Greenwood? He, too, is clearly a great innovator but seems to play the Mick Ronson role to Thom Yorke’s David Bowie. John Mayer? Ughh. Yeah, I know he blows away Buddy Guy every time the two of them get together on stage, but no. No. No. No. No. No. Ahem, sorry. In any case, as I mentioned above, I think the “casting” was just right. There’s also something to be said for the group consisting of a Brit, an Irishman and an American, as really being representative of rock n roll as a phenomenon of the Anglosphere.
One of the aspects which the film brings into perspective is the continuity that exists between the various generations of guitar players in rock history. Fashions and styles may change with the times, but there is a thread in rock music that stretches back beyond the sixties to the muddy banks of the Mississippi Delta. This point is brought across in two poignant scenes in the film. The first is when Jack White talks about his favorite song, “Grinnin In Your Face”, an a cappella number from legendary bluesman Son House. Since this song features no instrumentation whatsoever, White’s discussion reinforces the point that first and foremost guitarists are musicians who, through the playing of their instrument, are attempting to elicit an emotional response in the listener (a point corroborated elsewhere in the film by the Edge’s statement about how the guitar is effectively his voice). I think once we come to terms with this, questions about instrumental acrobatics and guitar pyrotechnics become moot. Everything comes down to the connection between musician and audience. The other scene revolves around the ensemble performance of the Band’s “The Weight”. We see the three learning and rehearsing the song, working out the harmonies and Page’s touching admission that he’s a terrible singer, and finally they perform it as the end credits role. It’s a stripped down and intimate acoustic performance which serves to weave together the various threads brought up in the film. Three guitar players, three musicians, doing what they do and spellbinding an audience in the process.
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