Just as the range and volume of the piano allowed that instrument to dominate music before amplification became possible, the raw power and virtuoso possibilities of the electric guitar have been central to the rise of rock and roll. With an electric guitar, a single player can project rock’s particular mixture of intensity and virtuosity across the largest arena. In It Might Get Loud, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) explores the artistry of this singular instrument through the voices (both musical and verbal) of three legendary rock guitarists: Jimmy Page of The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2, and Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. The film skillfully brings out their diverse approaches to playing the same instrument, ranging from Page’s seemingly effortless experimentation to The Edge’s use of elaborate electronic effects and White’s stripped-down “back-to-basics” style. We see the patient, methodical work of creation that will later explode into the wild frenzy of a concert before thousands of screaming fans.
The film follows these iconic artists over the course of a year as they prepare for a “Guitar Summit” with each other, and looks back into the past to reveal how their lives were transformed by taking up the guitar. Old memories emerge when Page returns to Headley Grange where “Stairway to Heaven” was composed, and The Edge revisits the classroom where U2 first rehearsed when they were teenagers. In another scene, White returns to the Salvation Army where he got his first guitar and explains the appeal of cheap instruments.
Although the film offers illuminating biographical background on the three guitarists, a tight focus on music spares us the expected Behind the Music-style portrait. Guggenheim gives us a full serving of rock and roll, without the usual helpings of sex and drugs. The decision to eschew sensationalism will delight some and disappoint others, but there is no question that his approach reveals eye-opening detail about these artists’ techniques and passion. In one revelatory scene, The Edge listens to old cassettes of his early musical sketches that show how a riff became the basis for one of U2’s most famous songs. Later, Jimmy Page is filmed at home spinning the records that inspired him to become a guitarist. In a moment that will delight anyone who has ever emulated their favorite rock stars, Page is so moved by hearing Link Wray’s classic instrumental “Rumble,” he starts playing air guitar.
While the “summit” is clearly an artificial created-for-the-movie event, the three men soon begin to relax and enjoy the opportunity to play together. Nothing earthshaking happens, but the result is a unique chance to eavesdrop on these great musicians while they riff and exchange ideas. It Might Get Loud strips away the distorting myths that surround rock stars and instead returns the spotlight to their artistry.
If you love rock and roll, you should hustle down to your local theater for this ear-opening documentary and tell the theater manager to make sure it’s LOUD!