**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
directed by Davis Guggenheim
by Bryant Frazer In the U2 concert film Rattle and Hum, Bono finishes speechifying about Apartheid in the middle of the song "Silver and Gold" by growling an acid faux-apology: "Am I buggin' ya? Don't mean to bug ya." Then he says, "OK, Edge--play the blues," and The Edge holds up his guitar and goes WEEDLE-DEEDLE-DEEDLE-DEEDLE-DEEDLE-DEEDLE-DEEDLE! Watching the movie with friends in college, I always savoured the absurdity of that moment. We imagined Bono scrunching up his face in a grimace and scolding The Edge for reverting to his ordinary clamour. "Aw, Edge," he might say, "that ain't the blues. That's the same shit you always play." And I'd collapse in helpless laughter.
I don't say this as a slam against The Edge. He simply represents something especially modern in rock-and-roll: the idea of the guitarist as pure technician. Any guitar player worth his salt is a little bit of a hardware wonk by nature, but Edge is one of those guys who stacks up pedals and effects in search of the perfect, singular sound. A great riff for him isn't so much a combination of notes as a combination of noises--harmonics, distortion, wah-wah modulation, an echoed din chiming out into infinity like church bells in the Grand Canyon. The guitar itself is just an input device; the pealing tones and rhythms are created elsewhere. It's an awesome sound, but it's not traditional guitar work.
Of the three guitar heroes profiled in It Might Get Loud, Edge seems the odd man out. Jimmy Page and Jack White share an obvious blues lineage, but Edge's influences are more punk rock--think Patti Smith and The Ramones. (At the time, U2's attempt to hitch itself to the legacy of black music in America earned its "roots" album Rattle and Hum a few scabrous reviews.) Page and White have both cultivated larger-than-life personae that make them group-hopping superstars in their own right, while Edge is famous exclusively for his work with just one world-beating band, U2. And if Page and White give the impression of being natural, spontaneous guitar men, Edge suggests the kind of player who needs not only a room of his own, but also some time to strategize before plugging in. Put it this way--he's not the one (White) in the film's opening scene building a rudimentary guitar out of a piece of wire, a chunk of wood, and a Coke bottle, and he's definitely not the one (Page) strumming out "The Battle of Evermore" on a tiny mandolin in his backyard. In a funny way, this iconic arena rocker comes across in context as more reserved--shy, even--than his counterparts. At certain points during the meeting of the minds chronicled herein, he looks like he's thinking it was a bad idea to appear in this focus group among rock stars in the first place.
This summit of guitar greats, orchestrated exclusively for the making of Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim's documentary, has that feeling about it from scene to scene. Audiences are drawn in by the implied promise that, at some point, magic is going to happen--that these three unlikely bandmates will find their collective groove, crank up their amps, and tear the roof off the joint. Despite the titular promise, It Might Get Loud never ventures into truly high-decibel territory. In fact, the film's hard-rocking climax--and arguably its loudest stretch--comes in the form of a three-way acoustic performance of that old chestnut "The Weight" that neither elevates nor debases the song. (One of the anchors of Scorsese's The Last Waltz, the tune is now dangerously close to a rockumentary cliché.) As a performance, it's of interest perhaps for its singularity, but not for musical chemistry.
Guggenheim actually spends less time depicting the musicians as a trio than he does looking at them individually, working up mini-bios of each superstar participant. Jimmy Page, who's in an infectiously jolly mood throughout, explains how his humble beginnings in a skiffle band led to The Yardbirds and, eventually, to Led Zeppelin. The Edge takes Guggenheim on a walking tour of the plain locations that figured into U2's early history, complete with some joyously cringe-inducing footage of the band from the days when it billed itself as The Hype. Jack White spins a great Son House record and recounts his guitar-centric childhood and humble beginnings in the upholstery business. (Really!) The best scenes in the film are the rawest--snatches of The Edge at sound check, or of White pounding out a tune on a rickety piano with such force that his fingers bleed and the floorboards shake the camera.
Guggenheim and his editor, Greg Finton, stitch all this together with aplomb, dipping into archival footage to illustrate moments in pop-music history and using instrumental tracks to help bridge transitions from one section of the film to the next. The cinematography, primarily credited to Pan's Labyrinth DP Guillermo Navarro and "Frontline" veteran Erich Roland, is similarly elegant, whether it's the dancing grain of the 16mm camerawork easily revealing the lines drawn across Page's skin or the crisp, carefully exposed HD imagery depicting White's baby-faced caginess on the soundstage. Both on location and in carefully-controlled studio environments, it's an entirely handsome presentation.
But Guggenheim already proved his showmanship by making Al Gore's global-warming slideshow watchable at the multiplex. Here, he obviously aspires to reveal something universal about guitar and guitarist by tapping three generations' worth of rock music and musicians. Unfortunately, documentarians are at the mercy of their subject, and the hoped-for lightning never strikes. Casual rock fans may get a ton out of this, especially if it gives them an enhanced appreciation of pure musicianship or drives them to further research. As rock scholarship, however, it doesn't make a case for its own existence. Why these three players in particular? Why this film at this time? In this group, Page is clearly the wise mentor, White the enfant terrible, and Edge something like the shy uncle. Their rap session isn't exactly boring, yet, aside from some interesting scenes where the three play through loose versions of familiar tunes together, it never goes anywhere. On slide guitar, working out "In My Time of Dying" opposite Page himself, The Edge does eventually play something resembling the blues. As a manufactured event, It Might Get Loud is, alas, a bust.
Here's a case where the movie is improved in its home-video release. It turns out that, the more time you spend with this trio, the more interesting their meeting of the minds becomes, and the Blu-ray Disc's 26 minutes of deleted scenes (all of them in HD with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio) include a few moments that would have been highlights if they were in the completed film. One of the scenes shows Page holding court, ripping through the famous circular riffs from "Kashmir" as Edge and White gape in wonderment, pick up their guitars, and struggle to keep up. "The Edge's Sound Check" is a fascinating look at Edge playing familiar U2 guitar parts solo, dialling in the settings for individual songs on the boxes at his feet before strumming them out. "Strings" is a bit of shoptalk that reveals the usually guarded White at his most relaxed as he talks different guitar string materials with Edge and Page. (Kurt Cobain used to string his guitar with piano strings? Really?) In another elision, he teaches them how to play the deep seven-note riff at the heart of "Seven Nation Army," finishing the lesson with a quip: "That'll be five dollars." The scenes are generally of top quality--there's a bit of amplifier buzz running underneath a couple of the scenes, but that's the sound of live rock-and-roll for you. They benefit, I think, from a lack of editing--the film is aggressively cut to cram a lot of disparate material into a fairly spare 98 minutes. The unhurried quality of this bonus footage, like the scene of Page farting around with a Theremin for a full minute, comes as a bit of a relief in comparison.
Also on board is a press conference from the Toronto International Film Festival (38 mins.). Both The Edge and White seem more relaxed than they ever do in the film, and Edge is especially self-effacing. (Someone asks what his reaction was on seeing It Might Get Loud for the first time, and he responds, "Relief that I didn't hate myself totally. Only [in] small moments.") Much of the material covered by the filmmakers in that press conference--what was the inspiration for the film, how did the three featured guitarists react to being approached to appear, etc.--dovetails with the BD's audio commentary, wherein Guggenheim is joined by producers Chilcott and Tull. The track itself is about what you'd expect, reasonably balancing notes on documentary craft, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and doting on the musicians.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
As far as I can tell, the 1.77:1, 1080p Blu-ray image, encoded in MPEG-4 AVC, is beyond reproach, in its representation of both the film's grainy 16mm location footage--which was captured under a multitude of different lighting and shooting circumstances--and the slick, nearly noiseless HiDef depicting the three guitarists together on a soundstage. Regrettably, some of the archival material looks generally mangy and some of the television-sourced material, including scenes from "Top of the Pops" as well as news clips and other performance footage, has been stretched horizontally to fill the widescreen frame. Furthermore, the still images used are often remarkably rife with compression artifacts, suggesting that original photographic elements could not be found and highly compressed JPEGs were used instead. Most of this is a reflection of the quality of the source material (and how it was upconverted to HD in post-production) rather than the Blu-ray transfer, though the artificially-stretched clips rankle. I do wish somebody had decided to "pillarbox" them for presentation in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio before they were committed to Blu-ray.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio is not as mind-blowing as you might expect. Some of the interview audio is a little flat, and much of the soundtrack involves solo guitar or expanded stereo mixes, neither of which necessarily expands impressively to five channels. There's a lot of clarity and detail in the live recordings, though, which accurately reproduce the sound of electric guitars unleashed, and all of the channels are in use pretty much all of the time whenever there's music playing. Pro tip: turn the volume way up. The more you can make this movie sound like a Marshall amp in the corner of your living room, the more you'll enjoy its aural design.
The disc also has one of those "BD Live" buttons sitting there, taking up space on the menu. BD Live still takes forever to start up, even on a PC, and once you get through that process, there's another lengthy "loading" screen for Sony's proprietary "movieIQ" feature. Select BD Live and input your email address, then press the green button on the remote every time you hear a song you like. When you're done, you'll receive an email message that links you to a web page listing each of the songs you selected. This proves especially pointless because, once you've got the list, you can't do anything with it. You can't listen to the songs, you can't buy them from iTunes or Amazon, you can't read notes on them from the "All Music Guide" (or wherever). What you can do is send the list to your Facebook account, where your friends, too, can bask in its uselessness. Meanwhile, once you activate the clunky movieIQ option, if you want to bring-up the pop-up menu to navigate to another scene, you'll be required to turn off movieIQ--which will stop playback and kick you back to the main menu. Ugh. If there were an Oscar for "most misbegotten special feature," the current implementation of BD Live would be a front-runner.
The platter rounds out with It Might Get Loud's theatrical trailer (2 mins.) plus the long-in-the-tooth highlight reel "Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!" and previews for Soul Power, An Education, Persepolis, Every Little Step, By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, and Michael Jackson's This Is It. Originally published: February 10, 2010.