Smile Politely

Director Davis Guggenheim taps into the artistic process in It Might Get Loud

Having delivered a sobering warning about the state of our environment, with his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, one would think the next obvious step for filmmaker Davis Guggenheim would be to do a feature on Greenpeace or the plight of the Amazon rain forest. While those are worthy subjects, the director thankfully tackled a far lighter but no less rewarding topic in his newest film It Might Get Loud, a stirring documentary with the simple premise that “three musicians get together to discuss the electric guitar.” Fate, fortune, and circumstances conspired so that the trio in question just happened to be Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2 and Jack White of The White Stripes. Can you say, “rock nirvana?”

“I wasn’t trying to come up with the definitive guitar trio and unfortunately Jimi Hendrix wasn’t available,” says Guggenheim who by his own admission is not much of an ax player himself.  “I fiddle with my wife’s acoustic guitar and my son’s Fender Strat, but really I suck if you want to know the truth.  I play when no one is looking.”

Fortunately, the filmmaker did not let this deter him from his vision, as the inspiration for the film was not the guitar playing itself but something far more universal.  “As a director, I am really interested in how people create.  I could have done a film about writers and artists, but it struck me that it’s different with musicians.  There’s a sense of immediacy when it comes to the creation of their art and I wanted to try and peak inside that magic they generate.”

Loud succeeds in doing that to a tee and what makes it compelling is the manner in which Guggenheim weaves the trio’s personal stories together, recording their anecdotes and filming their return to the site of their musical roots.  The director’s process was to conduct individual interviews with each of the musicians before they met and what was surprising to him was that commonalities in each of their experiences emerged as “story strings” that he could build the film around.  This only heightened Guggenheim’s anxiety regarding the trio’s initial meeting.

“I made sure they did not meet for a period, even after they all arrived at the studio that day,” he relates.  “When they finally did, it was rather funny because it was a bit tense and awkward at first and they engaged in nothing but small talk.  However, once Jimmy started playing and talking about “A Whole Lotta Love,” it became a bit of a throw down between them. The Edge followed with “I Will Follow” and from then on, the gloves were off and everything just flowed between them. These guys are much less comfortable with words and live to express themselves through their music.”

Not surprisingly, the filmmaker wound up with more footage than he could use and some incredible moments ended up on the cutting room floor. While these three are seen playing “I Will Follow,” “In My Time of Dying,” and “The Weight,” in the film the trio rendered other familiar songs as well. “They do a magnificent version of “Cashmere” and a rousing take of “Seven Nation Army” as well but the film’s running time dictated that we leave those moments out,” says Guggenheim. “Thankfully with DVDs, I’ll be able to include those when it is released on home video and viewers will be able to enjoy those moments as I did.” 

More than anything, It Might Get Loud is a story of liberation as we see that the guitar and the music they wring from it, provides an avenue for Page, the Edge and White to free themselves not only from their environments but also from the confines of traditional music itself. Each ground-breakers in their own right, these three have gone on to express themselves in a distinct manner that serves as an example not only of how to create art but attack life as well. Joyous, fascinating and wholly entertaining, this examination of salvation through art proves to be one of the best documentaries, if not films, of the year.

It Might Get Loud opens today at Boardman’s Art Theatre and ends September 10.

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