By Sean Daly
Times Pop Music Critic
Imagine a long, lashing guitar solo, one juiced by anger and frustration and dead-end desperation, one that makes you want to rocket out of your seat — or at least pull off a few sweet air moves. Now imagine that complex solo ripped, simultaneously, by three iconic ax-men picking face to face to face: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's the Edge and the White Stripes' Jack White. That's the swaggering idea behind It Might Get Loud, a revealing and unfailingly cool music doc directed by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), who blends his lust for electric guitars and narrative trickery to rousing effect.
On Jan. 23, 2008, the British Page, the Irish Edge and the American White met for the first time, a casual "summit" filmed on a spare soundstage. They brought some stories, some records (vinyl, natch) and some weapons of choice. Guggenheim uses that as a launching point to tell their individual backgrounds — or how each went from Lost Boy to legend. (Well, two are legends, but I dig White a lot, too.)
The players have vastly different backgrounds and philosophies, which lends historical texture — and makes it crowd-pleasing for music fans both casual and geeked-out. White, born in hardscrabble Detroit and hungry for inspiration, wants his guitar to sound broken and bluesy. "Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth," he says, eventually finding a crackly Son House record and never looking back.
The Edge, however, is a slave to modern gadgetry, perhaps because the reality of his war-torn nation call for anthemic surreality. Thus, he wants his guitar to sound like anything but. At its stripped core, the riff for Where the Streets Have No Name is "like a waltz beat," he reveals, before we hear a live version dizzied by pedals and plugs.
And as for Page, who started as a skilled session player begrudgingly recording Muzak (and Goldfinger!), his guitar is nothing less than the hammer of the gods — or maybe a trowel to rebuild music's boundaries. In the movie's giddiest moment, Page tears off the riff of Whole Lotta Love, and instead of joining in, the Edge and White just sit there, paralyzed with goofy grins.
Guggenheim follows each man back to his roots (schools, rehearsal spots, music shops; "20 minutes in this store defined the sound of the band," the Edge says of one Dublin haunt). With panache, the director also introduces each glistening guitar — Page's Strat, White's Kay, the Edge's Explorer — as talismanic keys to artistic and personal freedom.
The archival footage is fantastic, and there's plenty of smart reporting (the double-neck guitar was born of necessity — a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven.) But an assumed final jam session between the three never really explodes; instead, the movie ends with a totally average cover of the Band's The Weight. And although the men enjoy each other's company, they're ultimately better players than talkers. Oh well, it's still pretty fun. And long before the credits, you'll be dying to pick up a guitar — or at least a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin II.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/ popmusic.