So how does a documentary that primarily works from first persons accounts of three major figures in rock n roll not slip into an exercise in self indulgence? Jack White of the White Stripes and the Recounters, the Edge of U2, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Yardbirds come together in some sort of warehouse to talk about the electric guitar.
The bulk of the documentary plays as a back in forth of mini bios of each of the musicians detailing how they came to music, how they interpreted it and what it means to them. You see them travel to important locations of their development, with the Edge going back to the school where U2 first formed and Page going to where seminal records were produced. Jack White explaining how working in furniture repair helped him on the way to the electric guitar. How do they come off from their first person accounts of what they think is important, does the Edge come off more than just someone clearly obsessed with his cabinet sized effects unit, that he claims pushes music forward? Does Jack White come off more than just someone who fetishizes the blues and makes claims he’s going to trick the other two participants to teach them their tricks?
I think Jack manages to come off as authentic because he clearly put in the time and it’s hard to fault his reverence for blues and the music that shaped the start of rock n roll. Sure he put an electric harmonica embedded into one of his guitars but somehow it comes off more as a gadget than an amp that goes to 11. The Edge’s obsession with his effects equipment and whether or not it was something that actually translates in the large arena venues U2 plays at is something that is thankfully addressed. We are shown a scene in which he contrasts what a bar of notes sounds like without and then with his big sound box. A little while later we also get a nice little animation that illustrates how the effects box adds another layer of complexity that almost acts like two guitars. He already is clearly an amazing musician and even if the audience doesn’t appreciate exactly he’s doing in the massive venues I think it’s fine, its good to be a little crazy about something even if it’s just for limited number of music enthusiasts. To me the person who comes off the best and relate able is Jimmy Page. He has a sort of charisma and screen presence that makes him clearly accessible. Maybe it’s his wizened old hair and general geniality that resonates from his smile but he comes off both clearly in sync with his craft and not destroyed by rock’s excesses ala a Bret Michaels or Ozzy Osbourne.
In between their antidotes we get what I think is the best part of the film is when they take up their guitars and actually play together. It really was what left me wanting more, which is probably a good thing, to see them just play a few more songs. They have a sort of musical language they share and that perhaps most people of trades develop that really shines through. I was really able to hold onto all three of their clearly apparent obsession with the craft of playing the guitar, the fetishization of the equipment, their ambition to explore different avenues in sound all rung true for me. Is the movie a little self indulgent at times (I mean do we really need to be shown that the Edge does a version of yoga developed in Wales?), yes, but is it still engaging and a watch; if they had only gotten to more of them talking to each other and less about themselves I would have enjoyed it even more.
Review: 3 out of 4 stars