Tuesday, November 03, 2009

It Might Get Loud

On first hearing the idea - of putting guitar players from three different generations of rock into a room together to talk about the electric guitar - you might scratch your head in wonder that The Edge and Jack White were chosen to join Jimmy Page in the discussion; but after you watch the movie, you’ll come away with one of two thoughts: either director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) could have made the movie work with any two guitar players to go along with Page - because let’s face it, any movie about rock guitar would have to include Page - or The Edge and Jack White might just have been perfect choices. What I don’t think it’s possible to come away with is that somehow this idea for a movie was anything but a great success.

There are two veins to the movie: one is the meeting of the three guitar players in a soundstage dressed up to look vaguely like someone’s study at the same time that it’s abundantly clear that a movie is being made there; and the other has the filmmakers following the three musicians around the stomping grounds where each man grew up and fell in love with playing the guitar. If there is a weakness to the film, it might be in the way that the stomping grounds portions tend to meander and drift sort of aimlessly from thing to thing, like all Guggenheim wanted the fellows to do was free associate their own recollections of growing up to be guitar players.

The bits on the soundstage are close to perfection, though - especially if you’re into rock music and even more especially if you’re into guitar at all. (I don’t think that you necessarily have to be into electric guitar to be swept away by what takes place on that little soundstage.) Then again...I might be wrong on that. I’m fascinated by the guitar, in part because I’ve always wanted to learn how to play it. Unfortunately, after buying a guitar a few years ago, I came to the conclusion that I don’t really have guitar player hands; but I still like to pick it up and noodle around on it from time to time, and I love to hear it played well in rock and roll songs. So watching three guys talk about the different things they do to make different kinds of sounds - and then seeing them do those things - is fascinating to me. Seeing Jimmy Page play the guitar in something other than stock footage from old Zep concerts is also fascinating.

The Edge talks about his meticulous process for creating the perfect guitar sound for every song - a process that sometimes necessitates that he use a different guitar on every song; and he talks about how the guitar sounds at the beginning of “Beautiful Day” came to be - a sort of happy accident that resulted in a recording of both the chords he was playing and the reverb effects from his amp, which made it sound like he was playing about ten times more sounds than he was actually playing. He then plays the actual chords that he was playing when he discovered that particular reverb effect - and it sounds almost nothing at all like what wound up on the album cut of the song.

And that’s all well and good. I have no problem with U2, but I never really got into them - and I have pretty much no opinion about either the White Stripes or the Raconteurs (although based purely on the music I heard in the film, it seems to me like the Raconteurs was the better band); but I love Led Zeppelin, even if Q95 does play the same handful of Zep songs over and over and over again. Hearing Jimmy Page talk about guitar and seeing him play on the soundstage for The Edge and Jack White (and all of the filmmakers) was really cool. Listening to him rip off the opening riff of “Whole Lotta Love” is a lot of fun. That song gets played too much, but if you can listen to it objectively and try to forget the fact that Q95 can sort of make you hate bands you love by playing too many of the same songs too often, then you really have to admit that, aurally, it’s one of the band’s most impressive compositions. It’s maybe a little easier for me to cop to that because that song happens to be on my favorite Zep record, II.

The most fun, though, might have been listening to Jimmy Page talk about how the writing of “Stairway to Heaven” resulted in his having to come up with a completely new way to play guitar on stage - so that he could play both the twelve-string acoustic part at the beginning and the six-string electric solo. His answer was to use a double-necked guitar with twelve strings on the top neck and six strings on the bottom, and they show some stock footage of Page playing the song in concert. “Stairway to Heaven” is another of those Zep songs that you hear too much, but it’s also one of those songs that is so good that you sometimes forget just how good it is because you hear it so much; but like most things, it opens up when you learn a little bit about its history - and when you can get that history from a primary source like Page, well...so much the better.

There’s more to the film than just these few bits - but they are the ones that stood out most for me. I wasn’t as enraptured by the bits about Jack White, but I did come away from the movie with more respect for him as a guitar player specifically and musician generally. Much of his shtick seems to be an affectation, and more of the serious musician comes across here than you would think possible given his Mad Hatter-style persona. I don’t know that he’s innovative in the same way that Page and Edge have been over the years - but he’s certainly enough of a character to make up for any lack of novelty and presents an interesting modern (or maybe more like postmodern) counterpoint to the legendary Page and Edge.

1 comment:

Michael Maier said...

Sorry I didn't find you after the movie the other night, I was pretty zonked out. But thanks for signing me in on such short notice and for a pretty full house at that. I do appreciate it, though my manners don't always show it. (And I always at to your per-head because of it.)

The movie was okay, not quite as expected.

It did indeed meander and I'm not so sure Jack White was a good choice for a third. But until seeing the film, I'd never heard a note of the two bands he's in. From what I saw, I doubt I'll be hunting any of it down. It did remind me I need to get more early U2 though.

I'm gonna ponder some more on this and post a review on my own blog later.