Film Review: It Might Get Loud

Musical Doc Rocks Your Socks Off

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
It Might Get Loud
“So ... where are the groupies?”
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Given the recent passing of Les Paul, the universally lauded godfather of the electric guitar, the timing couldn’t be better for Davis Guggenheim’s six-string-worshipping documentary It Might Get Loud. Aimed straight at the heart of the world’s most popular amplified instrument, the film is a love letter so obsessive it could be issued a restraining order.

Rather than rely on your typical, academic history of electric guitars or their relationship to pop music, Guggenheim (the director behind Al Gore’s
An Inconvenient Truth ) takes a more abstract, organic approach. In January of 2008, three generations’ worth of guitar gods were brought together. Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2 and Jack White from The White Stripes were taken to a giant warehouse full of guitars, records, amplifiers and some comfy seating and allowed to just, you know, hang. No pressure. No obligation to actually pick up those guitars. Just let them sit and talk about the thing they love the most.

Of course, it wasn’t long before this historic summit turned into a jam session. It’s worth the price of admission just to see the goofy, half-stunned grins on White and The Edge’s faces as Jimmy Page launches into the opening notes of “Whole Lotta Love,” because they’re thinking exactly what any one of us would be thinking at that exact moment: “Holy shit! That’s Jimmy-fucking-Page! And he’s playing ‘Whole Lotta Love’!”

Between guitar solos, hot licks and noodling chords, however, our three main subjects are more than able to talk at length about this elusive, magical thing called music. Each sports his own distinct personality. Jimmy Page is the Country Gentleman. The Edge is the Tech Wizard. And Jack White is the Mad Alchemist. Though they come from different times and places, the singular object of their worship is unwavering. Be it a Jack’s hollow-body Kay or The Edge’s Gibson Explorer or Page’s legendary Fender Stratocaster—the electric guitar is the end-all, be-all for these boys. Watching them transform simple creations of wood and metal into screaming machines of love and pain and joy and anger is never less than mesmerizing.

Historic summit meeting aside, Guggenheim devotes the bulk of his film to individual portraits, isolating each of his three subjects and giving them plenty of time to wax rhapsodic about power chords and distortion pedals. Cameras follow the boys to old high schools, recording studios and rehearsal spaces as they let the memories flow. This is no mere talking head documentary, though. There is historical footage, animated sequences and several segments in which Jack White wanders around conversing with a 9-year-old simulacrum of himself. (Tossing his beloved, plastic Montgomery Ward guitar on the ground and instructing the kid to stomp on the strings, White issues the immortal rock god advice, “You’ve got to pick a fight with it.”) We see, in archival footage, a preteen James Page plucking his guitar with a quaint British skiffle band. (“Mama don’t ’llow no skiffle playin’ round here” only faintly presaging the lyrical punch of “Squeeze my lemon ’till the juice runs down my thigh.”) More footage spotlights a pre-fame U2 cavorting about in neon clothing and playing a proto-new-wave tune that could have landed them an opening slot on a Duran Duran tour.

Together, in that warehouse full of equipment, the three may exhibit arguable supergroup chemistry, but it’s fascinating to spot their differences as well as their similarities. Of the three, it’s actually The Edge who comes across as the most genuine and honest here, stripping down his art and showing us the nitty gritty of how it’s done. (His deconstruction of U2’s “Elevation,” with its embarrassingly simple two-note melody, really points out the technical wizardry of an electric guitar with all the accoutrements cranked to 11.) White keeps up his retro revival tent persona, preaching the gospel of lo-fi musicianship (and still referring to Meg White as his “sister”). Page is mostly reserved, repeating war stories from the glory days and riding around in his limo. Given his lofty position and still-lingering skill, however, it’s hard to fault the guy for his courtly been-there, done-that demeanor.

It Might Get Loud is a chaotic, messy, all-over-the-map thing. You won’t walk away reciting pertinent names and dates in the history of popular music. But you will begin to see the subtle links between three legendary musicians and the superheroes who showed them The Way. For Page it was the vibrato swagger of Link Wray. For The Edge, it was the DIY rebellion of The Jam and the Buzzcocks. For White it was the stripped-down hindsight of Flat Duo Jets. And always, of course, there is the haunting specter of blues legends like Robert Johnson. Yet, for all their various spiritual influences, it is ultimately this instrument, this electrified tool, this love child of Les Paul that allows each individual musician to experiment, to modify, to amplify, to distort, to strum and bang and strangle in order to create that one distinctly personal sound.

For all its artistic loops and whorls,
It Might Get Loud boils down to three passionate, intelligent musicians simply talking about the thing they love. Of course, the show-and-tell portion ain’t too shabby either. (Can I interest you in Page, The Edge and White banging it out on The Band’s “The Weight”?) In fact, it’s about as close to rock and roll heaven as us mere mortals are likely to get.
It Might Get Loud


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