You can lead three illustrious electric guitarists to a soundstage, but you can't get them to open up. At least that's what I learned from the rock documentary It Might Get Loud, which features Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2 and Jack White from the White Stripes. The film's conceit is a summit between three generations of rockers, conducted in the round with the principals given access to a range of instruments (including a double-necked guitar for Page), a stack of records and a turntable, even a theremin propped atop an amp. But the results are less than compelling: the aloof Page, laconic Edge and wired, annoying White do little more than trade a few chords, exchange some platitudes and then head home to an undeserved, look-at-all-that-we've-been-through montage that comes way too soon.
Wisely, the filmmakers behind It Might Get Loud - including An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim - efface the soundstage meeting, giving the majority of screentime to biographical sketches of all three guitarists that are uniformly interesting, sometimes illuminating. Page returns to Headley Grange, the rural poorhouse where parts of Led Zeppelin IV was recorded, where he stands in the foyer where John Bonham's drums on "When the Levee Breaks" were mic'ed, and performs a too-briefly-excerpted version of "The Battle of Evermore" on mandolin on the front lawn.
The Edge walks the streets of Dublin, returning to the secondary school where, at age 14, he sighted Larry Mullen, Jr.'s flyer calling for musicians to join the group that became U2. And White settles down in his parents' Detroit attic, listening to a Son House record that he thinks encompasses the universe.
Each interview is accompanied by priceless archival footage of, for instance, Page in a skiffle band and U2 in new wave garb.
A full-length documentary could be made about each musician. So why bring these three together in a single film? The film fails to answer that question, to make the argument for what unites or divides these musicians who come from different eras of popular music, or for even what's unique about the electric guitar. Sure, we get glimpses of inter-generational conflict: Page asking The Edge if he's really playing the right chord progression when teaching the group "I Will Follow"; White getting blank stares from Page and The Edge when he proudly breaks out a newly-constructed guitar in which a microphone is built in to a corner of the guitar's body. But those gestures never quite cohere.
But there remain some charming moments and discussions of craft that make this worth the watch, even in the film's piecemeal state. It's a little bit magical to watch Page play air guitar along to Link Wray's "Rumble," and White's decision to cast a nine-year-old version of himself to help tell his story, dressed identically to his future self in hat, bowtie and suit, is inspired, strange and cute. Edge's explanation of his approach to the guitar - showing how reverb can add complexity to an otherwise simple line, demonstrating alternate fingerings - gives substance to his profile beyond a retelling of U2's history.