Movie Review: "It Might Get Loud" on Guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White

The sounds of Jimmy Page, left, the Edge, right, and Jack White are explored in
The sounds of Jimmy Page, left, the Edge, right, and Jack White are explored in "It Might Get Loud." (By Eric Lee -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 4, 2009

Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of "An Inconvenient Truth" moves from global warming to global rock with "It Might Get Loud," and indirectly asks a question: If you could pick three representative players of the most influential musical instrument of the past 50 years (that is, the electric guitar), who would they be?

Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson and Bonnie Raitt? Keith Richards, Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy? If mortality weren't an issue, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix and Chet Atkins would be, shall we say, divine.

Guggenheim's own string trio, in a documentary conceived by Thomas Tull (producer of "The Dark Knight," "Watchmen") are Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the Edge of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes, three guitarists who, in representing their generations, bring both chops and charisma to a film that depicts wood, lacquer and hardware the way Hugh Hefner depicts Miss September. Guitar nuts will be turned on, but everyone else will have a good time, too.

It's hard to imagine a similar movie being made about, say, the bassoon. The electric guitar has dominated rock music, been associated with its biggest icons (Clapton, Hendrix, Townshend, etc.) and is possessed of romance. The innovative Les Paul's recent passing should add a bit of poignancy to the movie; likewise, the increasingly hands-off quality of so much commercial music. The principals here, however -- the elegant Page, the modest Edge and the cocky White -- are strictly hands-on, explaining and demonstrating what it is they do: Achieving a singular sound that is distinctive and personal amid the clangor of mainstream musical traffic.

While the "what" of their sound is set out plainly enough, it's the how and why that don't quite come across quite as clearly. During what is one of the film's more revealing moments, the Edge plays some thunderous U2 riff and then demonstrates, after killing the effects and volume on his Gibson Explorer, the utter simplicity of what he's playing. How exactly did he get that Edge sound, and why? Trade secret, apparently. Where each guitarist has arrived in seeking his trademark tone is clear enough. Not so the route.

White is more forthcoming, explaining quite bluntly the importance in rock of pure attitude, which he has in abundance and which translates into his music in the White Stripes and other projects. Page, whose storied past includes work as a top English session player before his years with the Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin, shows himself to be an unlikely master of dynamics and taste. As Guggenheim takes each player on a tour of his personal memory lane, the Edge's recollections include some fairly funny tales of Dublin, bad hair and the nascent days of what is now arguably the No. 1 band in the world.

Guggenheim makes all this guitar/guitarist worship engagingly cinematic. One needn't have a Stratocaster moldering in the closet at home to get a kick out of "It Might Get Loud," which the MPAA has given a PG rating, in part for smoking. Quite right.

It Might Get Loud (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for brief vulgarity and smoking.

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