Loose strings

It Might Get Loud

Jack White, the Edge and Jimmy Page, just standing there, doing whatever.

Jack White, the Edge and Jimmy Page, just standing there, doing whatever.

Rated 2.0

The problem with Davis Guggenheim’s documentary It Might Get Loud is that it never really does. It reminded me of a line from another documentary, The Compleat Beatles, when the subject turned to the making of Magical Mystery Tour: “The idea was to pile the cast and crew in a tour bus and drive all over England, filming whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.”

Guggenheim’s idea with It Might Get Loud was similar—to bring three modern masters of the electric guitar together and film the meeting. The idea must have sounded great at meetings to pitch the idea to potential backers. But now that the project is in the can, what happens? Well, not nothing, exactly, but not much. Not enough to fill out its modest 97-minute running time without resorting to a lot of rambling and loosely connected vamps.

The trio of guitarists that the film brings together are Jimmy Page, the Edge and Jack White. Page, 65, is one of the gods of the business, no error. He joined the Yardbirds in 1966 and, after that band’s collapse in 1968, formed Led Zeppelin with John Bonham, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones. Led Zeppelin lasted until Bonham drank himself to death in 1980, but the band’s influence, like Page’s career, endures to this day.

The Edge occupies a position in the rock pantheon little short of Page’s. Born David Evans in 1961, he plays guitar and keyboards and sings backing vocals with the Irish band U2, which he and his friends Bono, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen formed in 1976 when they knew little about being true musicians. They learned fast, though, and by 2003 Edge found himself voted No. 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Jack White (born John Anthony Gillis) is the youngster of the group at 34, best known as the lead guitar and vocalist for the White Stripes, a band he formed with his “sister” Meg White in 1997. (In fact, Meg is his first wife, not his sister; he took her last name when they were married in 1996 and kept it after they divorced in 2000.) Since then, Jack formed two other bands, the Raconteurs in 2005 and the Dead Weather earlier this year, after It Might Get Loud was filmed.

Few of these biographical details are to be found in Guggenheim’s film. White himself, for one, is singularly reticent about discussing his private life (he says it’s irrelevant to his art, and he’s probably right). Guggenheim evidently assumes that we already know everything about Led Zeppelin, U2 and the White Stripes—or maybe that we simply don’t care. Certainly Guggenheim doesn’t care; the myth of Meg being Jack White’s sister is repeated here without comment or correction. And a documentary that deals with the electric guitar yet never finds time to mention Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry or B.B. King can’t lay much claim to historical context.

Even so, some of the most interesting stuff in It Might Get Loud is the archival footage of the three’s early years, especially Page’s and Edge’s, and most particularly Page’s fling with skiffle, that folk-flavored genre that dominated British pop music before the Beatles.

Guggenheim divides his film into chapters, each taking its subtitle from something one of the men says (“Am I Really Just a Guitarist?” is typical). It looks like an effort to impose order and unity on the film, but the through line of the action still comes off as random and discursive. It’s not that the three men are inarticulate—far from it, in fact—but Guggenheim is careless about shaping their remarks into a cogent manifesto about their art, and sometimes even about identifying who is speaking (I think it was Edge who made a ruefully apt remark about the movie This Is Spinal Tap, but I wish I could be sure).

The last few minutes give a hint of the movie It Might Get Loud might have been, as Edge, Page and White indulge an acoustic jam on the Band classic “The Weight.” At long last, and in present time rather than on archival footage, we see them playing, feeling each other out, riffing and melding their different styles. More of that would have been more satisfying. It really should be about the music, not the talk.