It Might Get Loud is Davis Guggenheim’s summer after science class. The director has followed up his Oscar-winning 2006 documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, with a film that nourishes his inner music fan, another doc that brings together three titans of rock — Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s the Edge, and the White Stripes’ Jack White — to jam, talk about how they got started, and ruminate on that most revolutionary of rock ‘n’ roll instruments, the electric guitar.
The film is as narratively loose and occasionally meandering as a casual noodling session. It’s occasionally trippy, such as when a child shows up dressed exactly like White and plays along with him in several scenes. (One passing mention tells us it’s White as a kid. Which doesn’t really explain much.) It’s often thrilling, such as when the three musicians learn each other’s hits or, near the end, perform a soulfully imperfect version of the Band’s “The Weight.”
But most of all, It Might Get Loud is intimate. Guggenheim captured some astonishing moments here, including White composing a song on the spot or the Edge admitting that he sometimes feels “like a complete idiot” if inspiration doesn’t strike. The highlight, though? A shot of Page standing over a record player while Link Wray’s “Rumble” spins, a huge smile across the legend’s bobbing head.
And then he air-guitars.
Guggenheim spent some time talking about the film with Washington City Paper, sometimes sounding like he’d be just as happy bouncing in a 9:30 club mosh pit as standing behind a camera.
WCP: I’ve had a hard time describing this movie. It’s not really a three-way biopic, it’s not a doc about the electric guitar. How do you sum it up?
That’s the challenge in selling the movie. I think of it as a reinvention of the rock documentary. Edge talks in the movie about how when [U2] started out as a band, they knew what they didn’t want to be — that’s how we started. We knew we didn’t want to be a documentary about car wrecks and drug overdoses.
WCP: You’ve said that you didn’t want the film to speak to music critics.
No music critics. This is personal portraiture. We wanted to create an event where these three guys, three generations of [musicians], come together and teach each other how to play.
WCP: Whose idea was it?
[Producer] Thomas Tull said, “I want to make a film about the electric guitar.” And then Lesley Chilcott, Peter Afterman, and I thought, How do we do this different? Rock stars are kind of mysterious creatures. How do you puncture through that?
WCP: How did you pick the three?
Jimi Hendrix was not available — we checked. You know, there’s a burnout factor. Some rock stars, sober or not, you have to put subtitles for what they’re saying…so I didn’t want to do that. We wanted to find three guys who could [intelligibly] talk about what they did. These guys are searchers; people who’ve found their voice. This is a movie about three distinct characters and how they found their voice. I think that’s [the best way] to sum up what the movie’s about.
WCP: Had they met each other before?
Glancing hellos…I don’t think Edge and Jack ever met. I think Jimmy and Jack had met.
WCP: How much footage did you shoot of them together?
Two days. From the minute they said, “Hello,” we were filming.
WCP: Did you give them any instructions?
No instruction, no notes, no background. They were all calling me on their own and saying, “What do you want me to do? What do you want me to play?” And I was nervous about that, because they were nervous.
But I had this instinct that what they came up with on their own would have this energy to it. I bought into a process more than I bought into an idea. And the process was: “Let’s let these guys tell their own stories.” There are no girlfriends, no rock critics, no historians, no band mates. And wouldn’t that be interesting? You see something about Bob Dylan, and he talks about 5 percent of the time. Here, Jimmy Page tells his own story — and it’s emotional, ethereal. More than accurate, I wanted it to be personal.
WCP: And unlike how musicians can sound during more formal, promotional interviews, none of them seemed rehearsed or jaded. They all seemed really passionate. Especially the “Rumble” moment. It must have been great to catch that.
And the thing is, if I had asked Jimmy, “Hey, play your favorite song and air-guitar,” he probably would have said no. But, organically, we just started talking and I said, “That album you’re talking about — let’s listen to it.” Everyone wants to tell their own story. You just have to encourage them, get them to relax, get them to trust.
WCP: Did you see any diva behavior? Jack White seemed like such a contrarian. Like when he talking about learning an instrument when he was a kid and said, “Everyone plays guitar. Why bother?” Almost to the point of being angry.
I would love to have a diva story. I don’t. Maybe because they were around each other? Musicians, when they get around each other, are very generous. I mean, when Jimmy plays “Whole Lotta Love,” it was kind of a throwdown, like “Look what I can do.” And then you see Jack and Edge go, “Oh, OK. Now it’s time for me to step up.” Edge teaches Jimmy and Jack to play “I Will Follow.” It was a gradual opening-up.
WCP: Were you concerned about it all coming across as too self-congratulatory?
Friends of mine have called it a love letter — too glossified, maybe I’m too much of a fan? And I’ve done harder stuff, like An Inconvenient Truth. But I didn’t want [Behind the Music-esque drama] to distract from what these guys did. I wanna know, How do you write a song? How did Led Zeppelin become Led Zeppelin, while all the other bands sort of fell away? Why did all these punk bands disappear, and why did U2 remain? What is it about their path, what is it about who they were that made them so distinct?
They each in the movie have a deep crisis. But it’s more of a soulful, I don’t know who I am, I don’t know how to write crisis. Now that may not be as sexy as a band mate dying, but I wanted the movie to be about something more.
WCP: Who did you find yourself more in awe around: the rock stars or Al Gore?
The rock stars. I mean, when you work, you’re working — I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. But then when they’d play a song, you can’t help but go…[total fan face]. So it’s harder to stay focused when you’re right there, alone in a studio with Jimmy Page playing to you.
WCP: What kind of music do you listen to?
Right now, I like this band called Department of Eagles. And Delta Spirit. I love new music. Though I’m listening to a lot more Led Zeppelin right now. I love Dead Weather. [White’s newest project.] It’s pretty hardcore — Jack is still pushing it. He’s so distinct, even in his three bands.
WCP: Speaking of Jack, who was that little kid in the movie who helped tell his story?
That’s Jack White as a 9-year-old boy. Did it throw you off?
WCP: A little bit.
Yeah. Jack said to me, “I want to teach myself how to play guitar.” And I was like, cool. And the next day he shows up in a hat and a bowtie and a suit, and in the back, seriously, was a 9-year-old kid dressed exactly like him. And he said, “Davis, this is Jack. Jack, this is Davis.”
WCP: Any idea how he found the kid?
Not a clue. I let them tell their own stories, and how he told his was quintessential Jack.
WCP: The kid was good.
The kid was good. [Pause.] How do you know it’s not him as a 9-year-old?
WCP: You just blew my mind.