My limited knowledge of rock and pop of the 70s and 80s came to me like second-hand smoke. The musical tastes of my two younger sisters drifted through the house, brought there on vinyl bought in record shops across the water in Seattle. Like a child of smokers, I didn’t mind these emissions into the household atmosphere, but I never inhaled them deeply.
When a series of superannuated English bands launched North American tours in the 80s my sisters were there. Before and after these concerts, the groups’ LPs got much play in our house. The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks: all passed through our corner of the United States and my sisters went off to hear them, well supplied with ear plugs by my mother, who only gave them permission to go to these concerts on condition that they preserve their hearing from the onslaught. Whether this protection was deployed I do not know, but I doubt it.
The title of Davis Guggenheim’s new rocumentary, It Might Get Loud, which convenes three guitarists in a rock and roll summit, puts its finger on the horror that my mother feared. But the inconvenient truth for the film maker is that his latest film doesn’t live up to its title. It never does get loud. The gauges for decibel level, musical intensity, and creative filmmaking remain for the most part supine, only occasionally pushing into the mid range.
What gives this Musical Patriot the right to pass judgment on such a film in light of the ignorance he’s just admitted to? The answer is: This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s faux rocumentary, which this year is celebrating the silver anniversary of its release in 1984. I saw it in the movie theatre as a freshman in college, then made intense study of the film both sober and in a variety of altered states over my remaining undergraduate years. No subsequent documentary devoted to rock and roll can escape its long, hilarious shadow.
As It Might Get Loud confirms, much of Spinal Tap draws inspiration from Led Zeppelin and its guitarist, Jimmy Page. Page (born 1944) is the elder statesman of the trio of summiteers of disparate ages assembled by the documentary to play music and talk about it: he is joined by The Edge (born 1961); and Jack White of the band the White Stripes and more recently The Raconteurs (born 1975).
In the present documentary a younger Page is heard decrying the critics who gave Led Zeppelin’s second album only a paragraph-long review and a bad one at that. Likewise, the Spinal Tap album Shark Sandwich got a two-word review: “Shit Sandwich.” Whereas Jimmy Page could dare to solo with a violin bow draw across his guitar, Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap picked up the violin itself and used it for the same purpose. And even enveloped in apocalyptic distortion emanating from his solo, Tufnel still had sharp enough ears to break off his improvisation and tune one wayward string on the violin, then resume his sublime rock and roll oration. In this scene everything was said about questionable obsession with fine details in the context of overpowering loudness.
Spinal Tap makes it impossible to see and hear the phallic strumming, the tight trousers and the overwhelming maleness of rock’s history without irony. But this is also where Spinal Tap rides to the rescue. It redirects many of detours into pretentiousness of It Might Loud towards comedy.
Like Don Quixote riding out in the second volume of Cervantes’ novel to discover that he is famous throughout the land, Spinal Tap rocks its way into It Might Get Loud, if only for few telling seconds. Jack White admits that when he saw This is Spinal Tap he didn’t laugh, he cried because it was so true, and for a fleeting moment we see on the screen the fictional rockers who have now become central figures in rock history. It is Spinal Tap that allows us to laugh at It Might Get Loud when, as happens a little too often in the course of its 97 minutes, the traffic in platitudes becomes too heavy.
The opening of It Might Get Loud follows the individual players as they converge on the meeting point as if headed for the tournament grounds. Jack White sits in the back of the limo on his way to what sounds like an intergenerational showdown. When asked what the outcome will be, White responds, “Probably a fist fight.” One can see the arch look in his eye and readily sense that White is making fun of the genre of pre-bout hype. White continues in a mischievous vein. Rather than respect for his rock and roll elders, he’ll get what he can out of them: “I’m going to trick them into showing me all their tricks.”
But there is never a hint of conflict or disagreement. Rather, a spirit of camaraderie soon prevails, and this gentle quality is the most endearing aspect of It Might Get Loud. Though Jimmy Page has made piles of money from his recordings and as titan of the guitar would seem to have a reputation to protect, he does not try to hide his weaknesses. There is charisma and great facility in his playing, but he dispenses with the bravura. These three guitarists, even with the film crew crowded just beyond the edges of the frame, can’t help but have fun, but this sense of shared enthusiasm and its musical results, are continually cut short to make way for long reveries on the struggles and heroics of yore.
Instead of musical competition or the new perspectives that this meeting might have offered on the individual players or on rock and roll in general, Guggenheim devotes his attention to the past. We return to the English country house where Led Zeppelin recorded its wildly successful albums. Similarly, a pseudo-English castle (somewhere in Los Angeles) is the backdrop for Spinal Tap’s interviews. Inside the house in It Might Get Loud Page conjures the ghost of drummer John Bonham. A drunken Bonham asphyxiated on his own vomit, a death satirized in Spinal Tap when the band recounts how their second drummer Eric Stumpy Joe Childs choked on someone else’s vomit.
There is much talk from Page of the effects of light and shade that he seeks in his guitar playing, a subtlety rarely associated with his seminal brand of heavy metal. Page and The Edge offer many ponderous pronouncements about creativity and genius. All of this is parodied in Spinal Tap with pipe-smoking bassist Derek Small’s professorial descriptions of his bandmates Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins as being “fire and ice … a Byron and a Shelley.”
The Skiffle craze of the 1950s is deftly parodied in Spinal Tap, and revisited again in It Might Get Loud. Here Guggenheim offers us interesting footage of a teenage James Page skiffling on a British television talent show, answering the host’s question about what he wants to do with his life, since one can’t pay the bills with music, by saying that he was going on to study “biological science.” Lucky for Page he didn’t follow that professional path.
The meeting at school, where bands such as U2 and were forged, occupies much of the non-summit minutes with the Edge: the limitless possibility of youth, from a chance meeting in the corridors or in a class meeting to world fame. This too is sent up in Spinal Tap, where the founding members of the band recall those early days, then flub the very first song they wrote together those many years before.
Near the beginning of the film It Might Get Loud presents opposing views of musical technology from its characters, and the audience thinks that this fundamental philosophical difference might play out in interesting ways once their representatives meet and begin to make music with one another. The Edge revels in the gadgetry of the guitar and its amplification. He recounts how his brother built his first guitar, and then expounds on the complexity of his pedal and various other controls of his current set-up. The obsession with collecting guitars and technology is skewered in Spinal Tap, too, when lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel tells documentarian Marty DiBergi that he shouldn’t even look at a pristine guitar that’s never been played and has “still got the ol’ tagger on it.”
By contrast Jack White claims that technology is a hindrance to creativity, that musical machinery is not a conduit to expression but a barrier to be overcome. At the beginning of the film he has a nine-year-old boy dressed just like him in three –piece suit with fedora kick a guitar lying on the ground into snarling chords. A father gives his son a lesson not in basic chords or other building blocks of his craft but in the aesthetics of the boot on metal. But these opposing views of technology submerge almost before they have risen even to the surface, and no compelling theme is provided as replacement.
The youngest of the three guitarists, Jack White, is the real star of this show. He cites Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” as his favorite song of all time, and admits that the reason the White Stripes dressed up in goofy outfits and affected an awkward stage presence was so that they, as white performers, could get away with playing the blues. In one short sentence, White explains the dramaturgic paraphernalia of rock and roll as a vital distraction from the underlying problem of racial politics. But even this is treated in Spinal Tap with the band guarding against suggestions that they are “too old and too white.”
Aside from the fact that Spinal Tap has stolen in advance so much of the thunder of Might Get Loud, the main problem with this documentary is that the meeting of the three guitarists, convened in a kind of ad hoc living room set up in the middle of a cavernous studio, occupies only a miniscule portion of the movie. Moments like the one in which White and The Edge bask for a glorious moment in Page’s proud chords are few and far between.
Only in the final scene of the movie do the three rocksters strap on their guitars and get ready to tackle that classic counterculture hymn, “The Weight.” At last we get a full performance of a piece of music with three guitarists strumming away. Jimmy Page admits to his younger colleagues that he can’t sing, though he does allow himself contribute the first note of the chord built up at the end of each chorus of the song. But even this one tune granted the patient audience isn’t at all a sublime forum for rock and roll guitar. There’s plenty of strumming, but not a trace of improvisation, no room given for the vaunted soloist’s art.
The title of the film is taken from a line of warning spoken by The Edge, as he shows us one of his many guitars and the effects he can achieve with his battery of electronics. Perhaps out of deference to what I suspect is a largely nostalgic, even middle-aged audience, the documentary never achieves the loudness or even narrative energy its title would like to suggest. Staid hagiography and Hall of Fame snippets of the history of rock and roll vastly outweigh the bursts of brilliant energy, brimming with creativity and beauty and destruction, that flash now and again across the screen. The summit itself is eerily devoid of energy, as if rock and roll itself is ready for the museum. If Pete Townsend or any other old and deaf rocker happens to the movie theater to see It Might Get Loud, he’ll need his hearing aids not his earplugs. This film never bothers to allow its creative stars to crank it up together. It Might Get Loud doesn’t even get close to ten on the amp. Forget about eleven.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org