There are three kinds of people in this world: those who have been in garage bands, those who wish they had been, and those who have played in bands before arena crowds. The new documentary It Might Get Loud is about those professional rockers, but it’s designed for everyone else. Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows up An Inconvenient Truth with this sideways glance at the electric guitar by way of profiling three generations of guitarists: Jack White of The White Stripes, the Edge of U2, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Guggenheim gets unprecedented access to the three, who share their tentative boyhood steps, their influences, their approach to playing and composing for the guitar, and what keeps their creative juices flowing. Cumulatively, a sort of history emerges, but it’s not that kind of doc—it’s more like three 60 Minutes celeb profiles in one, if they were a bit more spontaneous.
It Might Get Loud has the added cachet of promising a musical summit in which the three guitar gods will talk and play together, but first Guggenheim aims to dig into each’s formative years and creative process. The sarcastic White takes the angry young man pose (“Distortion. Anger. Guys like us who got picked on in high school—this is our chance to push you down”), his ironic persona highlighted by staged sequences of teaching his nine-year-old self how to shred. But Guggenheim also gets him at his most raw, composing a song from scratch as cameras roll in his farmhouse studio, and reverting to the air of a music fan when discussing his influences or watching Page play “Whole Lotta Love” from a foot away.
Surprisingly, The Edge turns out to be the most eloquent about his art. Pegged as the virtuoso of effects units, The Edge amiably pokes through old tapes for Guggenheim. “I have no idea what these are,” The Edge says, and they turn out to be early four-track demos of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” We also get to see him lay down the initial guitar track for “Get On Your Boots,” and walk the halls of the Dublin high school where he joined up with his now-famous bandmates. As for Page, we see him as a teen skiffler in old TV clips, and we’re reminded that he did session musician work for jingles, film music (“Goldfinger”), and The Kinks before becoming a rock star in his own right. Page takes us to the legendary home where “Stairway to Heaven” was composed, and recalls its distinctive acoustics. Even at 65, Page easily channels his youthful wholeheartedness, as when he puts on a 45 of Link Wray’s “Rumble,” beams, and plays a little air guitar.
The appeal will run mostly to fans of one or more of the artists. Though each is a distinct personality and they don’t show an excess of chemistry, it seems clear they have respect for each other or, if they didn’t, gain it in the process. Viewers are likely to have the same experience, listening to these artists jam (on The Band’s “The Weight”) and sincerely wax enthusiastic about their art.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]