It’s difficult to think of three more disparate personalities and guitar styles than those of Messrs. Page, Edge, and White. Each is about 15 years older than the next. Page is the classicist, steeped in blues and English folk, the dab-hand session man, the riffmaster, the archetypal guitar god. The Edge, weaned on punk and new wave, is a rhythmic and tonal alchemist, intent on breaking boundaries, besotted with the endless transformative possibilities afforded by technology. White is a wild primitive, happy to wrestle sound and fury from cheap or homemade instruments, bleeding (literally) all over the strings.
“Chemistry is mostly about opposing energies,” says Guggenheim. And that’s precisely what he was after when he picked these three men: “Edge, with all his technology, versus Jack, who is so anti-technology. Jimmy, with his sexuality and moodiness, versus Edge, who is so direct and austere.”
Guggenheim says he was “terrified” that these three distinct personalities would come attached to three distinct egos. But you can sense the mutual respect the men have for one another — even as, at the same time, you can see the three of them subtly sizing one another up.
Guggenheim concedes that “for the first two hours, the conversation was actually boring. I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is going to suck.’ ” Then, he says, “Jimmy picked up his Les Paul and played ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and it was like a throwdown. Basically saying: ‘Here’s what I do. Let’s stop talking, boys, and get on with it.’ After that, I knew we had a movie.”
Although talking shop and trading solos form the centerpiece of the film, Guggenheim does a fine job of weaving a narrative out of the three men’s life stories.
We travel with Page back to Headley Grange, the English country house where he recorded “Stairway to Heaven” with Led Zeppelin, and see black-and-white archival footage from the ’50s of a fresh-faced “James Page” strumming a skiffle song on local TV. (Afterward, he tells the host of his intention to pursue a career in “biological research.”)
We follow the Edge to Ireland, watching as he conjures aural color at his gizmo-cluttered Liffeyside rehearsal space, visiting the Mount Temple School, where the 15-year-old first responded to Larry Mullen Jr.’s bulletin-board post seeking to form a band, revisiting the stultified economy and sectarian tensions that fired U2’s early songs.
We’re shown the decrepit Detroit where Jack White labored as an upholsterer, playing drums and guitar in his off time. And we visit him down on the farm in Franklin, Tennessee, watching as he bashes away at scary blues standards and as he records, on the spot, an original song to his reel-to-reel.
But the best moments come from watching the three interact. White and the Edge seem to have a genuine rapport, and both gape in fan-boy awe as Page unleashes that timeless “Whole Lotta Love” riff before their eyes.
Page, for his part, is curious and inquisitive, watching intently as White — whose own playing owes much to Page’s ’70s pyrotechnics — walks them through a White Stripes song. And he gamely joins in on U2’s “I Will Follow,” even if he seems a bit nonplussed by the Edge’s unique phrasing and self-invented chords: “You sure about that?”