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Review: It Might Get Loud

Davis Guggenheim films his essay on the electric guitar
By MIKE MILIARD  |  August 27, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

That bonhomie wasn’t necessarily a given. “U2 came up as a band in direct opposition to bands like Led Zeppelin,” says Guggenheim. “They wanted nothing of it — the endless guitar solos, the sexuality. U2 was political, punk, straightforward. That’s what’s so great about rock and roll: each generation has to come and destroy and reinvent the music before it. Look at Jack and the White Stripes and Dead Weather. He’s the anti-U2!”

Yet whether it’s Page’s Les Paul Sunburst or the Edge’s angular Gibson Explorer or White’s J.B. Hutto Montgomery Airline, one thing with six strings unites them. That doesn’t mean you can sound like your guitar hero simply by dropping a few thousand dollars at the local music shop. “People go out and buy it [equipment] thinking they can get the same sound,” says Hogarth. “It just doesn’t happen.” With the best guitarists, he adds, the phenomenon is “otherworldly, almost like their soul coming through the instrument.”

Yes, there’s something ineffable — some might say preternatural — about the bond between a guitarist and his guitar. In the film, the Edge describes first picking up that Gibson Explorer, gauging it, considering its heft in his hands. He knew right away: “This guitar had possibilities. There were songs in this guitar.”

Hogarth describes a common affliction among Berklee shredders: “gear-acquisition syndrome.” But we see White going in the opposite direction, treasuring shitty plastic guitars, instruments with warped necks and ever-slackening strings. In his mind, a guitar should be wrestled with, a player should “pick a fight with it and win.”

Indeed, at the beginning of the film, we see White, in seconds flat, fashion a one-string guitar with a plank of wood, some nails, a coke bottle, and an electric pick-up. As a cow looks on, bemused, White peels off a quavering blues lick. “Who says you need to buy a guitar?”

Or a video game, for that matter.

“This movie is the anti–Guitar Hero,” says Guggenheim. “Guitar Hero is about getting the highest score, about hitting ‘chords’ at exactly the right moment. These guitarists, Jimmy, Jack, and Edge, became great by not conforming, not doing it the way they were taught, and expressing themselves, especially if it was the wrong note at the wrong time. That’s what made them unique and visionary.”

Hogarth, at least, is encouraged that so many are flocking to a video game that’s notionally based on his favorite instrument. “I think a lot of the kids who are playing it are playing it because they want to be guitarists. But now that it’s proven that the electric guitar can generate this kind of amazing interest, I think it would be great if some music education were incorporated into the game, even if it’s just minimally — a rhythm, or a note, or maybe have the guitar be a bit more representative.”

Meanwhile, It Might Get Loud appears at a poignant moment, with the passing two weeks ago of Les Paul, who pretty much single-handedly ensured the electric guitar’s centrality to pop music in the second half of the 20th century. “The way Paul took his guitars apart and modified everything, that’s what this movie is about,” says Guggenheim. “The kid who must destroy something to find himself and a way to express his voice.”

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