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Review: It Might Get Loud

Davis Guggenheim films his essay on the electric guitar
By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 27, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


It Might Get Loud | Directed by Davis Guggenheim | With Jimmy Page, The Edge. and Jack White | Sony Classics | 97 minutes
Some guitar teachers will tell you there’s a right way and a wrong way to play the guitar. But Davis Guggenheim’s rousing new documentary, It Might Get Loud, reminds us that that’s not true at all.

You can saw at it with a bow, as Jimmy Page did in “Dazed and Confused.” (For that matter, you can jam screwdrivers into the bridge and hammer at the strings with your fists, as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are wont to do.)

You can run it through a galaxy of effects pedals — the Wah-Wah, the Superfuzz, the Big Muff, the Echohead — and towers of amps and racks. That’s the sort of thing that enables U2’s the Edge to turn simple chords into sounds that are shimmering, shape-shifting, alive.

You can cut it open and customize it, take it apart, and put it together again. You can slice out new soundholes or add supplementary pick-ups and knobs and switches. You can even, as Jack White hired one luthier to do, install a secret compartment in which to hide a harmonica microphone, to yank out and scream into whenever the spirit moves you.

White stars, with Page and the Edge, in It Might Get Loud, a film that might approvingly be called “guitar porn.” Its soundtrack coruscates with power chords and scorching solos; its hi-def close-ups lingers lovingly on lacquered wood and polished chrome.

A guitar, after all, is “like a piece of sculpture,” as Page rhapsodizes — and also, not for nothing, “like a woman.” But it’s not just eye candy. As the Edge points out, every element of a guitar’s construction “is there in the sound.” He would know, having built an electric guitar from scratch — scrounging the materials, sculpting the wood, winding the wire for the coiled pick-ups — at age 14.

“There’s something really iconic, almost supernatural about this instrument,” says Thaddeus Hogarth, a Berklee guitar-department professor who writes a blog, “The Quest for Tone,” about his ceaseless exploration of the guitar’s sonic palette. “The sounds you can get from it, the quality of the kinds of tones you can get. There are some great piano players out there — but they can’t get feedback.”

As I write this, untold numbers of fingers are clickity-clacking on the multi-colored buttons of Guitar Hero and Rock Band controllers. For every song powered through in those games, there’s a guitar somewhere that’s not getting played. As former Phoenix staffer James Parker writes in the Atlantic, for all we know such simulacra could slowly be “sounding the last trump for rock and roll as we know it.”

But the guitar is not dead yet. And it’s a transcendent affection for this instrument, one so simple yet so complex, that led Guggenheim — who directed Al Gore’s global-warming jeremiad An Inconvenient Truth and Barack Obama’s convention bio-pic and prime-time campaign infomercial — to convene three of rock’s most iconic guitarists on a Hollywood soundstage.

It’s difficult to think of three more disparate personalities and guitar styles than those of Messrs. Page, Edge, and White. Each is about 15 years older than the next. Page is the classicist, steeped in blues and English folk, the dab-hand session man, the riffmaster, the archetypal guitar god. The Edge, weaned on punk and new wave, is a rhythmic and tonal alchemist, intent on breaking boundaries, besotted with the endless transformative possibilities afforded by technology. White is a wild primitive, happy to wrestle sound and fury from cheap or homemade instruments, bleeding (literally) all over the strings.

“Chemistry is mostly about opposing energies,” says Guggenheim. And that’s precisely what he was after when he picked these three men: “Edge, with all his technology, versus Jack, who is so anti-technology. Jimmy, with his sexuality and moodiness, versus Edge, who is so direct and austere.”

Guggenheim says he was “terrified” that these three distinct personalities would come attached to three distinct egos. But you can sense the mutual respect the men have for one another — even as, at the same time, you can see the three of them subtly sizing one another up.

Guggenheim concedes that “for the first two hours, the conversation was actually boring. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is going to suck.’ ” Then, he says, “Jimmy picked up his Les Paul and played ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and it was like a throwdown. Basically saying: ‘Here’s what I do. Let’s stop talking, boys, and get on with it.’ After that, I knew we had a movie.”

Although talking shop and trading solos form the centerpiece of the film, Guggenheim does a fine job of weaving a narrative out of the three men’s life stories.

We travel with Page back to Headley Grange, the English country house where he recorded “Stairway to Heaven” with Led Zeppelin, and see black-and-white archival footage from the ’50s of a fresh-faced “James Page” strumming a skiffle song on local TV. (Afterward, he tells the host of his intention to pursue a career in “biological research.”)

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Related: The Big Hurt: Broken bones and stripper poles, Guitar Hero: Metallica, In a bit of a jam, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Barack Obama, Entertainment, Thaddeus Hogarth,  More more >
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