It is really just a hunk of wood, some bits of wire and cat-gut, magnets, electricity.
A humble creation, one you probably could cobble together on your own in the toolshed. There's nothing magical about its construction, no strange, dark alchemy necessary to bring it from the imagination of the craftsman into the harsh light of reality.
Why, then, has the electric guitar been perhaps the pre-eminent vessel of transcendence for the better part of a century?
In his riveting documentary "It Might Get Loud," director Davis Guggenheim -- the man behind Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" -- offers us three views of the secret behind the six-string's ability to speak to listeners and musicians alike in a manner that moves far beyond mere language.
It's a simple film, one that hinges on a meeting between three generations of electric guitarists -- Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, U2's The Edge, White Stripes/Raconteurs' Jack White -- on a Los Angeles sound stage for a contrived "hang" and a bit of jamming. Guggenheim, however, has so masterfully paced his film that, by the time we get to that all-star jam session, we've fallen beneath the spell of the three radically different guitarists, and the guitar itself.
As "It Might Get Loud" opens, we see White, dressed like a self-conscious parody of a late 1800s soapbox preacher, assembling a makeshift guitar from a piece of fence-post, some wire, a few nails and a homemade pickup. White plugs his creation into a cheap, ancient amplifier, grabs a Coke bottle as a slide, and proceeds to unleash the ungodly howl of a thousand hellhounds, much to his apparent satisfaction. "You can make a guitar out of anything," White deadpans.
Next, we meet Page, widely held to be the greatest rock guitarist of his generation, and a man before whom any aspiring guitarist should genuflect -- daily, if possible. As the camera moves in slow, salacious, voyeuristic fashion across the expanse of a mouth-watering vintage Gibson Les Paul, a Page voice-over compares the instrument's aesthetic form to that of a curvaceous female, in the process lifting a rock on some seriously fecund soil -- just where does this fascination with the guitar's shape take root, Dr. Freud?
Page then begins performing a solo version of Zeppelin's evergreen "Ramble On," and here, Guggenheim reveals the modus operandi that sits behind the entire film -- he lets the music do much of the talking, yes, but he knows where to aim his camera. As Page gets into his "zone," the camera eye pans from his fingers to his face. Page, eyes closed tight, head moving seemingly involuntarily, lips pursed but straining to form some form of meta-speech, has clearly entered a trance state. The film might have ended there and then, and still would have been powerful, evocative and suggestive of a primal state of ecstasy lurking far beneath the well-coiffed countenance of rock 'n' roll. Happily, it doesn't.
Guggenheim brings in historical footage to frame the careers of his subjects -- we see Page as a young man, as a revered session musician in swinging '60s London, as a budding guitar hero with the Yardbirds, and as a full-blown rock god on stage with the mighty Zeppelin. Later, he takes us on a guided tour through Hedley Grange, the rural mansion where Zeppelin recorded many of the songs that made its reputation. Finally, a stop in Page's home music room where, surrounded by stacks of vinyl records, he slaps Link Wray's "Rumble" on the turntable, falls once again into a trance state, and waxes poetic on the influence this particular recording had on a his preteen self.
The Edge, as influential to his generation of guitarists as Page had been 15 years earlier, invites us into his rehearsal room, where he demonstrates his "guitarship enterprise" before Guggenheim's camera. The U2 guitarist is known for his ability to manipulate effects pedals and technological gadgetry to make the guitar sound like a mini-orchestra, but anyone who finds all of this to be some sort of gimmick covering a paucity of musicianship will be forced to think again -- Edge, like Page before him, spent his life working diligently to forge his own unique relationship with the instrument.
White can't help but look like a spoiled brat in this company, and being Jack White, he appears to go out of his way to fulfill such expectations. Where Page and The Edge come off as humble men grateful for all that the muse has granted them, White is overtly opinionated -- the main opinion being that technology is something to be beaten back from the door, and only primal, sloppy, pre-Elvis blues music is "authentic." Guggenheim probably didn't intend to make White look foolish, but the dude's faux-traditionalism -- while it raises some wholly valid points regarding the childlike state one must embrace to enter an unstudied, inspired state of music making -- is about as believable as his rural South "gentleman farmer" attire.
One can't help but like White despite his apparent arrogance, however. When the three guitarists finally meet to share songs, swap guitar-based reveries, and finally, jam together, it's clear that White is in a state of complete awe. As he should be.
One needn't say much when one has a guitar in hand, if a profound connection with both the instrument and the music itself has been fostered. Without forcing the issue down our throats, Guggenheim lets this fact reveal itself.
It Might Get Loud
Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)
Starring: Jimmy Page, The Edge, Jack White
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating: PG, for mild language
The Lowdown: Three generations of guitarists meet for a summit to celebrate the impact of the guitar on their lives. Beauty, hilarity and geekdom ensue.
Opening today at the Dipson Amherst Theater.