The Guitar: the sound of the divine in being human

5 04 2010

So many documentaries have been made about musicians, composers, bands and even fans that it seems ridiculous to think there was any new ground left to break, but director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) does just that in It Might Get Loud.  His avowed aim, as stated on the terrific extras on the US Blu-ray edition and in the UK press coverage the week before its release over here, was to try and get to the heart of the creative process for each individual musician featured, to try and grant the audience a moment when they were as close to looking in on that privileged moment of inspiration as he could get us without us having to turn up and watch them in the recording process for weeks.  To my mind, Guggenheim has achieved precisely that, and that is indeed new ground broken in the field of the music documentary.

If this has flown under your particular media radar, what makes the film of interest are the three generations of guitarist featured: Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather).  All have styles rooted in the bluesier end of rock, although they all represent different ends of the spectrum:  Page covers from skiffle to heavy metal with a side order of prog; The Edge was once described in the music press as a New Wave guitarist (I have fond memories of a printed interview with Def Leppard around the time of the Pyromania album where their guitarist Phil slagged off The Edge for not being particularly fast), but moved from punk through ambient to stadium rock’n’roll, then dance-rock and back to the stadium; finally, Jack White is the kind of young performer with both an encyclopaedic knowledge of what has come before him and the fervent dedication to measure up to, or even exceed, his influences. The thing that surprised myself and my good friend and fellow music obsessive Sean (paid-up life-long Depeche Mode and U2 fan) was how much we appreciated Jack White as the film wore on, given we were already very familiar with the older performers.  Neither of us could call ourselves fans of his work before the film, but we were both definitely fans by the end of it, and feel that his work in The Raconteurs easily holds up to the best work from older musicians.  Already a good sign about the power of the film, that it could take hardened, cynical music fans always looking for expressions of beauty, angst and power to match what they heard when growing up and convince them of the worth of a younger artist – but I digress.

The real achievement of this film for both of us viewing it was, as I mentioned earlier, to bring us as close as possible to what is going on inside the heads of such intensely creative musicians, men who have contributed so much not just to the bands they were part of, but to songs that have become part of the international soundscape in ways that make them recognisable as pop culture punch-lines.  The film allows these three men to take us back to their respective childhoods, to trace the influences of music, places and people in their lives, and to let them show us, sometimes to their own surprise, how they came to certain sounds, ideas and musical moments that those of us watching recognise so clearly, feel we know so well, that have been part of the soundtracks of our lives.  If you have ever tried to create artistic expressions of what lies behind your eyes, especially if you have to do it for living, then you too will connect with these three in a way you did not think you would be privileged to, given you are not part of their daily circles.  If you want to but feel you that you should not or cannot, then this should be required viewing, showing how three of the most successful, talented and unique popular musicians themselves struggle and fight and work to get to their achievements, but get there nevertheless.  Finally, if you’re just about the music, and not what’s behind it or how it came to be, then the film will hold less interest for you, but is worth sitting through for the performance footage: live, studio, and the three of them in a large studio for ‘The Summit’, all three meeting for the first time.  From this last place there are moments to send shivers down your spine if you are a lover of rock music, and even then one of the best is an outtake in the Deleted Scenes rather than in the film, another reason why, even though this is a proper feature documentary rather than a made-for-TV doc, there are advantages to seeing it at home.  (The other major one is so that no-one else has to watch you breaking spontaneously into air guitar frequently throughout….)

When the film ended, and we had worked our way through the superb extras, I was left with only one nagging question, something that was hinted at in the film but not addressed, and one to which, in the days and weeks since, I have realised that I am not sure I have or want an answer to.  Since first I heard the sound of a guitar as a child, what is it about that instrument above all others that speaks to something so much more than daily life here on this earth?  I learnt to play the piano as a child, although gave that up in pursuit of academic studies at high school, and for a year had an expensive fascination with the celtic harp, which I spent six months on to no great achievement.  Piano, harp, flute, cello, all fascinate and move me, and there are few greater sounds in the history of humanity than Miles Davis’ trumpet or Kate Bush’s voice, but in the end, for myself, it all comes back down to the guitar, whether acoustic, semi-acoustic or electric, six or twelve string, amplified or not, distorted or not, with effects pedals or not.  SOMETHING about the instrument in the hands of a great player with a great piece opens my heart and my mind and reminds me that I have a soul in the way that so much in daily western life fails to.  Maybe it is a generational thing – maybe samples, loops and keyboards do it for the next few along, I don’t know, I’ve certainly heard some amazing music put together that way that makes my soul take flight – but nothing moves me the way a guitar does.  Blame my parents for the music they played me, blame history for why the guitar over other instruments was an accessible and affordable instrument (in that you could make one yourself very easily even if you couldn’t afford one), look for answers wherever you want to – I certainly have – but in the end, I’m not even sure now that there is an answer.  The search, though, has been worth it, and I remain convinced that if there is such a thing as the afterlife, if I arrive and can hear Jimi jamming with Miles, I’ll know I’m in the right place.

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