How to make a rock guitar documentaryby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Despite its image of recklessness and rebellion, the world of rock and roll can be very conservative and regimented, particularly by age and generation.
So when Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim persuaded Led Zeppelins Jimmy Page, U2's the Edge and the White Stripes' Jack White to meet for an electric guitar summit there was potential for complete disaster.
But reviews say the resulting film "It Might Get Loud," which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, shows Guggenheim's gamble paid off.
When Davis Guggenheim set out to make a documentary about the electric guitar there was a wrinkle.
"I don't like most rock documentaries," Guggenheim said bluntly.
But Guggenheim is addicted to the documentary form. He pays for what he calls his documentary habit by directing TV shows like "Deadwood," "The Shield," "ER," and "24." He just did the pilot for the new "Melrose Place."
So perhaps it's telling that he describes most rock docs as overwrought and self-important. He says they are more about the personalities than the music, and it was the music he wanted to explore. He also learned that a lot of big name rock musicians don't like them either.
"My sense was that the mistake that most people make is that they go after everything," he said. "And that if we made a film that was about three really interesting people from three completely different worlds, then maybe something interesting would happen."
Fresh off winning the Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth," which made an unlikely box office success out of climate change, he turned his attention to different generations of musicians.
First on his list was Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Paige hadn't done an interview in decades, yet he liked Guggenheim's pitch, particularly the assurance there would be no rock critics involved.
Rather than head in with cameras rolling, Guggenheim sat down and did an audio interview with Page. He knew from making "An Inconvenient Truth" he needed to learn from his subjects the best place to shoot. He repeated the process with U2's the Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes.
"So they told me through those interviews where to go as a filmmaker," he said. 'It was a completely upside down process."
Thus Guggenheim went to Jimmy Page's home in England where Page explained how his life changed as a junior high student when he got his first electric guitar.
"And then it got to the point where the guitar was confiscated," Page says in the film. "They thought it was going to be counter-culture or something. It wasn't doing any harm to anybody; not then it wasn't."
It's also why Guggenheim went to the upholstery store in Detroit where Jack White did an apprenticeship and became a musician.
"Brian Muldoon was the master of the upholstery shop and he was the one teaching me and he played drums. 'Well I guess I'll play guitar, then'" White tells the camera.
Guggenheim also visited the Dublin rehearsal studio where the Edge demonstrated the huge effects console which he uses to get his signature multi-layered sound.
Davis Guggenheim filmed it all, and added a healthy dose of archive film. He then arranged for the three to meet on the largest sound stage in Hollywood.
"For the first two hours they were very, uncomfortable maybe is too strong a word, but they were feeling each other out," he said. "Then suddenly Jimmy stands up, grabs his Les Paul and plays 'Whole Lotta Love.'
"And you see Jack and you see Edge just melt, and they turn from these big rock stars into 10-year-old boys, watching," Guggenheim said. "You can see them, 'Where is he putting his fingers? How does he play that?'"
Page, the Edge and White played and talked together for two days, learning each other's techniques. Davis Guggenheim saide he has read reviews which claim the Edge has a little Page in his playing now and White's sound has some U2 elements to it.
Ultimately, Davis Guggenheim says "It Might Get Loud" is not about playing electric guitars, but about three musicians showing how they became great artists.
"These guys do not express themselves with words," he said. "Words are something else and in this movie words take a back seat. Bono is the lead singer. Robert Plant is the lead singer, but these guys say something different.
"But when you go to a concert, maybe the words aren't important. It's those vibrations that they make that pierce through you, and that's what this movie is about," he said.
When it's pointed out that Jack White sings, Guggenheim jokes the other two guitarists were prepared to forgive him.
The film has been warmly received on the festival circuit. Guggenheim said he's planning a DVD loaded with the recordings from the session he was unable to fit in the 90-minute film.
- All Things Considered, 09/17/2009, 5:53 p.m.