Four years after An Inconvenient Truth shook the world with its hard-hitting message on global warming, Oscar-winning film and documentary director Davis Guggenheim might have been tempted to continue in a campaigning vein.
Yet the lure of the limelight saw him shift his lens towards a trio of somewhat noisier subjects for his follow-up feature, It Might Get Loud.
The film follows rock legends Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, U2’s The Edge and Jack White from the White Stripes, as they jam, swap stories and share their passion for the electric guitar. As Guggenheim (below) explains, after the success of An Inconvenient Truth, he was reluctant to make anything too similar.
“I knew as a storyteller I had to go in another direction. It was important not to repeat myself.”
The idea came about when producer Thomas Tull proposed a film about the electric guitar. “We decided to reconceive the way you tell a story about musicians and rock ’n’ rollers, and to really throw the rule book out.”
With this in mind, the film moves away from the likes of the BBC’s The Story of the Guitar, and is more The Story of These Guitarists, with little historical context or critical opining.
“Part of me is frustrated with movies where rock critics or historians tell you how to like someone’s music, and why it’s so important,” says Guggenheim.
The centrepiece of It Might Get Loud is an almighty, three-way jam, sparking to life when Page cranks out the riff from Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love. “You could see him getting frustrated after about an hour of them talking,” smiles Guggenheim. “He said, ‘F**k it,’ and picked up his guitar. Jack and Edge transformed into teenage boys. To see two rock gods melt before another rock god was fascinating.”
Between them, the three superstar musicians have sold more than 350 million albums and racked up 102 years on the road — but it was the guitarists’ humble origins that most intrigued Guggenheim. “Even though their stories are so different — they grew up in different generations, with different intentions and different equipment — each of them grew up in extreme isolation,” he says.
“Jack grew up in a place called Mexicantown in southern Detroit, where there were no record stores. It was all hip hop and Mariachi music, and playing guitar was the most embarrassing thing a teenage boy could do. This instrument became the way that he found his identity, in a world that didn’t really accept him.”
The same goes for both Page and The Edge. “You see it with the way the U2 boys felt, growing up in Dublin, and certainly with Jimmy, in the suburbs of London, where no-one even had guitars,” says Guggenheim.
The filmmaker believes the lack of exotic distractions in 1960s London, 1970s Dublin and 1980s Detroit was integral to the single-mindedness that allowed It Might Get Loud’s stars to conquer the rock scene — and it’s something he fears might be missing in today’s internet-obsessed, reality showdriven musical landscape.
“I see it now with my own son,” says the 46-year-old. “We’re here in Los Angeles, where everyone has an electric guitar, there are guitar teachers and there’s GarageBand on every computer. Everything is available, yet no one seems to be creating any new music. Maybe one of the key ingredients is to be deprived.”
Guggenheim feels their harsh beginnings may have helped keep Page, Edge and White grounded. “Edge has been a mega rock star for three decades, yet I first met him in a teeny recording studio,” the director reveals. “I had to walk to the back and knock on a door that had no name on it, and he was there by himself, working. You could tell he’d been there for hours, and he was so intensely driven to find the next song. There was nothing glamorous about it.
“I sat with him in the studio, and we just talked for hours, with no direction. If people go to the movie wanting an exact historical accounting of the path of U2 they may be frustrated — but if they want to get an impression of what Edge is like and where his head is at, it might be enjoyable, and provocative.”
It Might Get Loud travels with the guitar gods to key sites from their pasts. Page goes to Headley Grange, where parts of Led Zeppelin IV were recorded. White drops into the predominantly Latino neighbourhood where as a teenager he secreted himself away with two drum sets and a homemade guitar.
The Edge, meanwhile, revisits the Dublin comprehensive school where U2 formed and played their first gig. Davis, who was born in humid Missouri, remembers the Dublin shoot well.
“It was so cold,” he laughs. “I couldn’t get warm. But the people in Ireland were amazing. In LA, everybody wants to be someone else. In Dublin, there’s such a rootedness in the culture. I felt a
tremendous pull towards that.”
Davis says the greatest challenge was coaxing the stars to open up on camera. “Everyone is protective of what’s deepest inside,” he says. “It’s even more of a challenge when it’s someone famous.” The artists’ schedules were another problem: “These are busy guys, particularly U2. How do you find the time to get them to open up? To Edge’s credit, he understood that. It says a lot about him that he was willing to share the emotions of getting up on stage for U2’s first performance. It’s very powerful.”
Guggenheim, himself an amateur six-stringer and a major U2 fan, says he struggled to contain his excitement. “I was starstruck, and it was a liability,” he laughs. “It’s essential to maintain your critical eye, but those things melted away time and time again.”
Despite the ongoing threat to the global film industry from pirate DVDs and the download culture, It Might Get Loud took cinemas in the US by storm. “The challenge with all films at this moment is to get people into the movie theatre,” says Guggenheim. “You can download a movie on iTunes, or steal it off a computer. It’s an insult. You spend months making a film, and then someone watches it on a computer when their cell phone is ringing, or they’re eating a sandwich. It dilutes the experience of really giving yourself over to a movie. I just saw that The Godfather is available on iTunes — I pity the teenager who sees The Godfather for the first time their laptop.”
Still, Guggenheim is thrilled by the effect It Might Get Loud continues to have on audiences. “The most satisfying thing is when people are inspired to be artists themselves,” he says. “These guys weren’t touched by magic dust; they just worked really hard and found their voice. If there was no such thing as a guitar it would have been something else.”
Might Guggenheim consider a sequel featuring that most beleaguered of rock musicians — the drummer. “Wouldn’t it be great? It could be called It Might Get Louder — or, It Might Get 2 Loud!”