The real guitar heroes

A lively new documentary brings together Jack White, Jimmy Page and the Edge -- and lets the legends be people, too

Topics: Critics' Picks, Our Picks,

The real guitar heroesFrom left, Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page in "It Might Get Loud."

“It Might Get Loud” (opens Aug. 14 in New York; select cities to follow)

Davis Guggenheim’s lively and affectionate documentary “It Might Get Loud” doesn’t actually get that loud, considering it brings together three distinctive and generally quite noisy rock ‘n’ roll guitarists, Jimmy Page (the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), the Edge (U2) and Jack White (the White Stripes). But what Guggenheim pulls off here — he’s the filmmaker behind “An Inconvenient Truth,” and was also the producer of the late, lamented HBO series “Deadwood” — is a relaxed tribute that doesn’t come off as fawning, instead allowing the individuality of each artist to shine through.

Guggenheim brings the three together at a “summit,” where they plug in and play. (You’ll have to wait until the very end to hear them awkwardly, and charmingly, pick their way through the Band’s “The Weight.”) But even more entertaining is the way the three trade stories and jokes (en route to the summit, White muses about his ambition to fox the other two into “teaching me all of their tricks”) and reflect on the musicians who helped shape their respective sensibilities, an array that includes Link Wray, Son House, the Clash, the Jam and assorted anonymous U.K. skiffle bands.

Guggenheim’s camera follows the Edge to his old school in Dublin, where he first saw, and responded to, an advertisement posted on the notice board by a pre-U2 Larry Mullen. The Edge also explains how he and his brother, as kids in Dublin, built a guitar from scratch, doing everything from carving the wood to hand-winding wire around magnets to make the pickups. “It wasn’t the best guitar that’s ever been made,” he says, “but it functioned.”

In one section of the film, White, dressed in a black suit accented with a red silk tie, is followed around by a suitably serious-minded kid, dressed identically, who represents his 9-year-old self. The grown-up White shows this mini-White some of the tricks it’s taken him years to learn — how, for instance, to make simultaneously god-awful and glorious noise on a guitar. “Pick a fight with it!” he urges.

And Page, who has historically come off as somewhat chilly and pompous, is extremely personable here, even a little sweet: With his swept-back gray hair and long dark jackets, he has the air of a country gent. Not that we want our rock ‘n’ roll icons to be too sweet. But there’s something to be said for allowing even our most revered rock heroes to be people, too. Guggenheim grants them that much, even as he recognizes that we love them most as boisterous troublemakers.

Check out recent Critics’ Picks:

“NYC Prep” parody, by Thomas Rogers

“The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union,’” by Andrew O’Hehir

“Dollhouse” Season 1 DVD, by Mary Elizabeth Williams

Prada fall/winter 2009 look book, by Stephanie Zacharek

“Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales,” by Laura Miller

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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