The guitar, mystery and “It Might Get Loud”

I hate guitar magazines.

I hate almost everything about them. I hate the cover shots of guitarists holding their “axes” like weapons, the same stupid pose every issue. I hate shameless songs the reader can learn to play in every issue (one of which is, inevitably, a Zeppelin or Metallica song). I hate the silly reverence paid to equipment, be it the guitars themselves or the litany of effects being peddled in the advertisements. I hate that some of the guitarists that I enjoy have probably spent some of their youth learning from these rags.

Above all else, I hate that guitar magazines glorify “the guitarist as technician” over the “the guitarist as auteur.” They peddle the idea that learning how to play “Stairway to Heaven” is as simple as copying the notes, or figuring out what guitars and amplifiers Jimmy Page used. The reality, of course, is that rock and roll is as much myth and mystery as it is manpower and machines. That’s why it’s an awful experience to sit through when your local bar band plays “Stairway to Heaven” and why it’s sublime to hear it from the original source – the song doesn’t always sound the same.

Which brings me to It Might Get Loud,the 2009 documentary from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim which inexplicably didn’t reach Halifax until this weekend (and even then only for two late-night shows). The film’s gimmick is simple: take three of the most distinctive guitarists alive – Jimmy Page, U2’s the Edge and Jack White of The White Stripes/The Raconteurs/The Dead Weather/whatever he comes up with next – and have a “summit” where they get to talk about the electric guitar with each other.

The funny thing about the movie is that the summit is almost completely underwhelming: they play some of each other’s riffs, talk about a couple of songs but, mostly, don’t have too much to say. (That said, the film-ending performance of the Band’s “The Weight” is easily a highlight.) So instead of focusing too much on the meeting itself, Guggenheim spends most of the film one-on-one with each guitarist, tracing them through their relationship with the instrument over the years.

I was worried that the movie would play like a guitar magazine, focusing more on the clinical than the creative. Thankfully, it’s quite the opposite. It Might Get Loud doesn’t care about how these guitar heroes built their most famous riffs and soundscapes, nor does it give undue reverence to particular pieces of equipment. Instead, it’s about mythologizing a guitarist’s work as something ephemeral, unknowable, mysterious. No matter how much the Edge talks about his pile of effects, or we hear Page talk about the house where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded, the film manages to keep things more than a little bit magical. You leave impressed, but unknowing.

Of the three stars, Jack White’s solo segments are the most compelling because there’s absolutely no way to tell if any of it is remotely true. While Jimmy Page plays elder statesman and the Edge honest broker, White shares screen-time teaching tricks to a representation of his nine-year-old self. He builds a guitar out of scrap wood and string, and then proceeds to ramble on about old records and a band he made when he worked as an upholster. I’m not convinced that any of this was real, or where that thin line between half-truths and semi-fictions was drawn. And I’m not sure I care. The mystery isn’t beside the point; it is the point. (The film even calls attention to its own game at the end, where The Edge points out how silly a couple of the film’s constructed visuals are.)

Leaving the theatre, I wasn’t compelled to head home, pick up the guitar and try to play something by one of the film’s stars. I just wanted to jam on my own. Unlike guitar magazines, It Might Get Loud doesn’t make you believe that you can be Jimmy Page, the Edge or Jack White, and it doesn’t even presume that their secrets are knowable. But it makes you believe that there is great magic in the guitar; magic worth unlocking, in whatever way one sees fit.

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