Lifelong rock ’n roll fan Davis Guggenheim chose Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, The Edge from U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes and Raconteurs for a documentary about the music’s signature instrument, the electric guitar. The 90-minute film weaves together all of their personal stories and devotion to the instrument, both in individual vignettes and in an extraordinary three-way conversation and jam session.
Lifelong rock ’n’ roll fan Davis Guggenheim wanted to make a documentary about the music’s signature instrument, the electric guitar. But with so many outstanding guitarists in rock and its associated styles, he needed to pick a musician to focus on.
“We wanted Jimi Hendrix, but of course, he’s unavailable,” Guggenheim said with a laugh from New York City stop on his media tour while promoting his new film, “It Might Get Loud,” which opens Aug. 28 in Boston.
Guggenheim chose Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, The Edge from U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes and Raconteurs. The 90-minute film weaves together all of their personal stories and devotion to the instrument, both in individual vignettes and in an extraordinary three-way conversation and jam session.
“With so many great guitarists out there, it is not possible to touch on all of them, so I guess my idea eventually was to choose three from three different generations,” Guggenheim said.
They also have vastly different approaches to the instrument, too.
“U2 first came up as kind of a reaction to bands like Led Zep,” he said. “The Edge is all about technology and using every new effect he can find, while Jack is very basic and lo-tech. Then, The Edge favors a very structural approach, keeping to the music as he's written it, while Jimmy Page depends upon a very improvisational style.”
The contrast between The Edge's technological mastery and White’s desire to get back to basics is quite apparent early on.
The film opens with a sequence in which White literally builds a makeshift guitar from wood and wire at an old train station, and then fashions a primitive amplifier to give it volume. It's an indelible image contrasted which lingers when, a few minutes later when The Edge’s guitar tech provides a glimpse at the array of effects pedals used during an average concert; he has 23 separate pedals for 23 different effects on 23 songs, and never uses the same one twice.
As the movie unfolds, each man gets to tell salient parts of his own individual story, and all three are fascinating in their own ways. Guggenheim shifts the focus among the three so no one is on screen by themselves for very long. This gives the film an immediacy and pace, but there are moments when you might wish Page had a bit more time to finish one of his tales.
“I think we decided somewhere in there that we wanted to make a Jimmy Page film on our own,” Guggenheim admitted. “But that’s not what we were aiming for, and to make this film work as a story, my instinct was that we needed all that inter-cutting, shifting time and place, to see the transfer of emotions all three subjects shared.”
The most revealing thing about Page, I suspect, will be details about how he honed his craft as a studio musician long before Led Zeppelin came along. He had played on several British pop hits, and even done commercials before becoming a rock guitar icon with the Yardbirds and later Led Zep.
“It proves that old adage that there is no better preparation for improvisation than the experience of playing by rote,” Guggenheim said. “It was like Picasso learning the basics of formal painting, before he began creating his own style.”
The Edge segments will quickly prove that U2’s songwriting is more than just Bono’s well-honed lyrics. The Edge takes the cameraman around his home studio, and unearths dozens of old cassettes with primitive versions of U2 songs. His devotion to finding new ways to give his guitar a voice is just one of the many aspects that make The Edge a riveting character.
“That was a revelation to me, listening to The Edge, how every song they do comes right from his guitar initially,” said Guggenheim.
White grew up in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood of Detroit, and as a white kid interested in rock and blues, he was an outcast early on. The most memorable image is of a young White working in an upholstery shop, where his boss was a punk rocker. White soon became the frontman for their band.
And yet, with that punk-rock background and the frequently outrageous imagery around the White Stripes in their early days, White says he felt he needed all that extraneous stuff to disguise that he was simply playing the blues.
“That is one of my favorite quotes in the movie,” said Guggenheim.
“There are so many things I learned about these three guys that keep moving me. I feel very lucky to have had this chance to meet them.”
That's likely the way music fans, or even people curious about rock ’n’ roll guitar, will feel after seeing this movie. And the three-way conversation/jam is a marvelously unscripted moment between three musicians who are obviously as happy to be their sharing their experiences as we are at hearing them.
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“It Might Get Loud” opens Friday, Aug. 28, at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.