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Three Generations of Rock: a review of It Might Get Loud

Academy-award winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim chronicles the evolution of the guitar in three of rock’s biggest icons.

Sunday, 9. December 2012  -  by  Evan Dexter

It is difficult to imagine any circumstance where you might find Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White sitting together in a circle, singing and strumming the chords to The Band’s, “The Weight”. But, however unlikely, here you have three masters of their instruments grinning from pure enjoyment over a Rock and Roll classic.

It Might Get Loud is the reason these musicians sit together. It is a documentary that unearths the evolution of the guitar over three generations embodied by three rock icons. We’re given a look at a very familiar instrument through the eyes of men who have very different opinions on what to do with it; all within one same genre of music.

As a guitarist, or a fan of rock in general, you might first stop and think to yourself that It Might Get Loud has made some odd choices here. Sure, as Led Zeppelin’s axe-man, Page is a guitar legend and an obvious selection. But does U2 really represent the rock generation of the 1980s and 90s? Surely Tom Morello or John Petrucci would seem like more fitting icons to stand for a generation. James Hetfield or J Mascis would fit the bill, too.

By the same token, the Y2K generation might be lacking in guitar rock icons, but is Jack White the one to take away from it all? Debatable.

But any apprehensions are quickly quashed as it becomes clear that It Might Get Loud is not concerned with each of its subjects being the definitive icon of their generation, but rather with what exactly enters their mind when they pick up a guitar and press their fingers to the fret board. And it is their brilliant success in portraying those thoughts that makes It Might Get Loud a must-watch for any guitarist or rock fan.

"Every element, the wood, the finish, and all the different aspects are there in the sound"

Page’s take on his instrument is euphoric. For him, the guitar is an outlet of expression; a way he can communicate his thoughts and emotions and love every second of it. His passion is evident in the smile that creeps over his face when the pick strikes the strings.

Born out of a generation of tamed studio musicianship, Page had almost retired altogether while Rock and Roll was still “breast feeding”. It was a Stratocaster and a distortion pedal that drove him to become the legend he is today. “Whether I took it on, or it took me on; I don’t really care. I just really, really enjoyed it.”

As the men sit and talk together for the first time, it’s Page that shows a warm-hearted nostalgia and infatuation with the guitar that is unmatched by his younger counterparts.

The Edge is the master of effects. His relationship with music can be summarized by the model he first picked up as young guitarist and is most often associated with: the Gibson Explorer. He explains that music in the 1980s was “searching”; dominated by self-indulgent hair bands like Spinal Tap that looked down on their fans. U2 gained its direction through wanting to change that, knowing only what they didn’t want to sound like. The cameras follow him as he digs through an old demo box, unaware of what each tape contains. The first he plays, unknowingly, is the original recording of the intro riff to “Where The Streets Have No Name”.

For The Edge, technology drove creativity. Effects allowed him to find the sounds and riffs he was looking for and explore new ones along the way. “I could see ways to use it that had never been used. Suddenly, everything changed.”

"Technology destroys emotion and truth. It makes creativity easier, but it doesn’t make you more creative"

Jack White sees it differently. “Technology destroys emotion and truth. It makes creativity easier, but it doesn’t make you more creative.”

White’s perspective on the guitar is undeniably the most unique. He sees it as a struggle; a demon to wrestle with and conquer until something real is made. He is a guitar’s old soul, longing for the simplicity of the old days: the blues. One man against the world.

Driven by rhythm and attitude, The Raconteurs front-man is immersed on stage as we are shown him pick solos while his fingertips bleed down his vintage Kay semi-hollow body electric. “People know when something’s fake. They can smell it.” But unlike Page and The Edge, his background and childhood in Detroit is only briefly mentioned, leaving the rest of his persona to be shaped around his theories of music and the guitar.

At one point White sits with a boy, an acting 10-year-old version of himself, teaching him how to play. “Pick a fight with it. And win the fight,” he says.

It is when the three men are put in the same room, guitars in hand, that you really hear what they are all separately trying to explain. As they play U2’s “I Will Follow”, a song marked by a pulsing signature riff, it transforms into something completely unique. Three different takes on the same two chords create a sound that no single guitar player could ever achieve. And this is where It Might Get Loud succeeds brilliantly.

For all that the documentary does as a documentary – backgrounds, videos, photo montages – it is the simple act of three unique guitarists being seated together that says everything the film wants to say.

Page best translated that message into words: put a guitar in someone’s hand and “their personality always comes through.”

"Put a guitar in someone’s hand and their personality always comes through"

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