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.