The first thing we see in Davis Guggenheim's documentary It Might Get Loud is The White Stripes' Jack White building a makeshift electric guitar from a couple of pieces of old wood and an empty Coke bottle. The musical capabilities of the contraption are highly dubious. But when he's done, White plugs his makeshift instrument into an amplifier and plays it, as if to imply that anybody could do the same thing.
White is being disingenuous, of course. Yes, anyone can pick up a guitar and wrest noise from it. But only people such as White, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and U2's The Edge - the other subjects of this quietly exultant movie - can turn that noise into an indelible, seminal part of musical soundtrack of one's life.
As a follow-up to his Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Guggenheim has opted for a much less controversial subject, bringing three generations of revered guitarists together in a warehouse to see what happens. The result is some polite and awkwardly self-conscious conversation, a little fawning (watch White and The Edge's awestruck smiles as Page plays a bit of Whole Lotta Love), and, inevitably, the occasional impromptu jam (including Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground and In My Time of Dying).
The best parts of It Might Get Loud, though, occur when Guggenheim visits with the musicians one on one. The reclusive Page, immensely likable and eloquent, invites us into his British mansion, plays old records, talks about his early career (including a stint with The Yardbirds and his decision to quit music and devote himself to painting) and says that when the album Led Zeppelin II was released in 1969, the group was so dismissed by critics that the record received a one-paragraph review in London newspapers.
The Edge revisits the Dublin high school where he met his U2 bandmates (even pointing out the bulletin board on which drummer Larry Mullen Jr. posted his "Musicians Wanted" notice), digs up a pile of unlabeled four-track demo tapes, plays them to find out what's on them (jackpot: Where the Streets Have No Name) and reveals that the secret to his success rests with the filters he uses to process the sounds that emanate from his guitar.(When he plays the opening riff from Elevation with and without distortion, the difference is shocking). There is also footage of an early, amusing video of U2, made when the men were teenagers, in which a disastrously uncoordinated Bono appears to be feigning an epileptic seizure onstage.
White concentrates on his love of the blues (he shares with us his favorite song of all time, the Son House's classic Grinnin' In Your Face, which consists solely of warbly vocals and handclaps), talks about his decision to make red and white the official colors of his current group, and reminisces about the rock band he formed with his boss while working at an upholstering factory (its name? The Upholsterers).
Guggenheim wisely eschews the sort of formal structure that might have given It Might Get Loud the dry tone of an educational documentary. Nor does he recount history that has already been documented exhaustively. Instead, the film flits from subject to subject, allowing you to bask in the company of its subjects as they pull back the curtain a tiny bit to reveal how they do what they do. It Might Get Loud won't teach you how to play the guitar or make you quit your job to pursue a rock-'n'-roll dream. But it does make you want to pull out some old records and listen with a new appreciation for certain sounds you once might have taken for granted.
It Might Get Loud opens Friday, Sept. 11 at the Regal South Beach, Cinema Paradiso and Shadowood.