Davis Guggenheim wanted to make a documentary about the electric guitar. But what he created was far more – a portrait of the artists as men.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2, and Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. The buildup to their meeting is beautifully orchestrated, each talking in the back of their own town car, heading to a nicely upholstered showdown at high noon.
They come from their respective corners to meet in the well-lit center of a huge studio. There is a moment of silence, hands are shaken and then each settles warily into his own corner. No one is sure what might happen next.
Guggenheim manages to strike a balance between the current incarnations of the artists, and where they came from – why they began playing; how they got to be who they are. In a combination of individual interviews and historical footage threaded through this two-day “summit,” we are given a picture of these men as musicians, as creators, and as people. They are guitarists of different generations, influences, places in their lives, and the world. But their common drive to create makes them shine on the screen and pound in your ears.
The most incredible moments happened when the guitarist started talking about how they make "their sound." Academically, it's easy to say that Zeppelin sounds different than U2 and different than The Ranconteurs, but it's harder to quantify exactly why. But then Jimmy Page starts discussing how he first discovered distortion pedals to create sustain, so a single note can go on to infinity, and you're hearing the sonic boom of Led Zeppelin. And then The Edge starts voicing an E-chord: moving the rich inner notes out and paring it down until it's the ringing, glorious tones that are U2. And when Jack White sits in a plain wooden room talking about his constant need to work against the circumstances, through warped wood and out of tune strings, searching for the rawest, realest sound possible where all the emotion is out on the surface, everything he’s done makes just a bit more sense.
Moving from Page's home in England, to Edge’s studio in Ireland, and White’s farm in North Carolina, the picture of who these artists are becomes more and more clear. There is a lot of discussion of the instrument itself, and what it is capable of. The Edge is central in these scenes, as his studio is practically a sonic supercomputer, with huge arrays of effect pedals and distorters. Page and White stand in interesting contrast to this, as Page was developing his sound at a time when the technology was new, and White searches for the lo-fi version of it all: a crackly-edged sound form an old LP.
We also get a touching series of stories of how each found the guitar that made their sound. Calling to them from a store window, or a salvation army store, even though each of them has more guitars than your average shop, there is that one that began it all – the holy grail with six strings.
We wander through their lives, their creative processes. We get to know them, and love them as people as well as musicians. And then, finally, we get what we have all been waiting for – a chance to really hear them play together.
“In My Time of Dying” by Led Zeppelin: A shifting, bluesy riff as the three of them toss the opening line back and forth, each making it his own. Page is the regal patriarch, with his flowing gray hair and impossibly long limbs. His hands move on the guitar the way great pianists move around the keyboard, with a delicacy of touch that belies the wall of sound they are producing.
The Edge is a compact packet of energy – grinning madly and flying across the guitar. An early scene of him doing yoga with a Blackberry in hand seems to capture him completely, balancing a clear sound and clarity of vision with piles upon piles of wires and buttons, searching for that combination that will create the sound he wants.
Jack White pulls his guitar close to his belly, leaning over, pushing his whole self through the music, a little too hard, too quickly. The metallic slide scrapes through the lines, always searching for the rawest edge of the music, where the emotion lies.
It is glorious. And it is loud.