It Might Get Loud: Pump Up the Volume
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
Larger-than-life guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White make a big noise in It Might Get Loud, a documentary that explores the electric guitar through each man's music and experiences. Guitar World sits down with the trio for a high-level discussion.
Hollywood meetings don't get more direct than this: In February 2007, one week before that year’s Academy Awards ceremonies, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was in the office of producer Thomas Tull, president and CEO of Legendary Pictures. Guggenheim was enjoying a bit of increased industry cred at that moment, having received a Best Documentary Film nomination for his direction of the 2006 Al Gore global-warming treatise An Inconvenient Truth.
Before Guggenheim could ask “How’s it going?” Tull launched into his one-sentence sell: “You’re going to win an Oscar next week, Davis, and I want this to be your next picture.”
And with that, Tull pointed to a Les Paul guitar hanging on his wall.
“It was one hell of a way to start a meeting,” Guggenheim says with a laugh, “but I have to admit, I was immediately hooked. Thomas proceeded to tell me how important guitars were to him—he probably loves music as much as movies—but that, in his opinion, nobody’s ever truly captured the beauty of the guitar on film.”
Tull, for his part, explains, “I told Davis, ‘You took a subject like global warming and you made people care. This should be easy for you.’ ”
“The thing is, no matter where you stand on the issue of global warming, facts are facts,” says Guggenheim (who, as Tull predicted, won the Oscar in his category). “But with music, and as it relates to the guitar specifically, we’re talking about art, poetry. It’s one thing to write a poem, but explaining why the poem is important, or getting inside the head of the poet and showing why he wrote it, what drove him to do it, what makes his poem different from others—that’s a tall order. But the more Thomas and I talked about doing a documentary of the guitar, the more I couldn’t resist its pull.”
Tull’s enticements included his production experience: Legendary Pictures was riding high on the success of the revamped Batman franchise. But Guggenheim was concerned momentarily when Tull announced that he had already cast the project—at least in his head. “I told Davis, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but in my mind we have to focus on three guitarists who bring to the guitar a point of view and have changed the way people hear the instrument in very profound ways.”
Guggenheim says, “I kind of braced myself. A producer casting a movie can sometimes be a tricky thing. But Thomas knows from where he speaks. When he said the names Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, all I could say was, ‘I totally agree.’ If we could get that amazing trio of guitarists to sign on, I knew we were halfway home to making the movie we wanted to make.”
And what if Page, Edge and White said no? What then?
“Then we would’ve bagged the movie,” Guggenheim says. “This was the movie we wanted to make, and we were determined to do it right.”
The result is It Might Get Loud, a new documentary about the electric guitar as told from the point of view of Page, The Edge and White. Scheduled for an August 2009 release in New York and Los Angeles, the film explores the instrument through each man’s career and playing style.
Several months after his meeting with Tull, Guggenheim found himself filming Jimmy Page in the guitarist’s home just outside of London, as Page pulled records from his collection and played them. Guggenheim says, “There was one record in particular that just knocked us both out: a vinyl copy of Link Wray’s ‘Rumble.’ Immediately, he started changing right in front of me. He was entranced, transported back in time to when he was a teenager. And then this charming, little-kid smile spread across his face. It was beautiful!”
It was also a little surprising, especially when the famously guarded Zeppelin guitarist broke into an impromptu moment of unbridled air guitar.
“That scene is so gorgeous and fun, and it’s one of the very important heartbeats of the movie,” Guggenheim says. “We wanted to capture the love of craftsmanship. It would be the same thing if I had the chance to go back and interview da Vinci. I’d ask, ‘What made you want to paint?’ ‘What colors do you experiment with?’ ‘Does the process ever drive you crazy at times?’ ”
Guggenheim addressed similar questions to The Edge at the U2 guitarist’s private music room in Dublin. In the film, these inquiries provide a glimpse into the trials and errors that go into crafting U2’s sound.
Working on the riff that would eventually become the backbone for the group’s recent single, “Get on Your Boots,” The Edge seems both amused and frustrated. “Some days, there’s just nothing,” he says.
Elsewhere, the guitarist illustrates the importance that pedal effects have on his much-copied style by playing the riff to U2’s “Elevation” unplugged. It sounds simple, ordinary even, and The Edge admits as much. Then he pushes a few buttons, works the wah-wah, and viola!—a king-sized arena riff emerges from his amplifier. The music inside the technology, how machines can further a guitar’s possibilities—these are the things that make The Edge get up in the morning.
Guggenheim says, “I found The Edge very brave to lift the veil off his sound. You always hear these stories about guitarists who never want to show you how they do what they do. The Edge had no problem taking us inside his head. I think he’s pretty secure in the knowledge that nobody can do what he can do.”
As for Jack White, some of his sequences proved to be among the film’s strangest and, ultimately, the most moving. At one point, at a broken-down farmhouse in Tennessee, the guitarist builds an instrument on the spot. “We were talking about the blues and what people played before they had ready access to guitars,” says Guggenheim, “and Jack said, ‘A diddley bow.’ Right there, he found an old plank of wood, a Coke bottle, some wire, and he made this instrument that can just take your head off.”
Elsewhere in the movie, White instructs a child actor nickednamed Young Jack (a dead-ringer for the guitarist as a youngster) how to kick and stomp his way through the blues. “That kid really had it,” White says. But he refuses to refer to the child as an actor, insisting, “He’s me. He’s Young Jack. How cool is it to see me show myself how to play the blues? That’s the genius of Davis Guggenheim.”
But White’s most revealing sequence takes place in a ramshackle room of the farmhouse, when he puts on a copy of Son House’s “Grinning in Your Face.” As White gets lost in the track, his face softens, his eyes dance and a sense of wonder emanates from his entire body. Taking the record off the turntable, he says softly, “From the first time I heard that, it was my favorite song. Still is.”
To reveal the muses that helped shape the guitarists, Guggenheim takes each one back to the rooms and geographical surroundings of his youth: for Page they are Epsom, England, and Headley Grange, the 18th century former workhouse where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded; for the Ireland-bred Edge, Dublin and the high school where U2 formed; and for White, the gritty streets of his hometown, Detroit.
But the undisputed centerpiece of the movie is the three-man summit at a Los Angeles soundstage, during which the celebrated axmen swap stories, show off their instruments and do a little jamming. There is a hilarious bit in which The Edge instructs Page and White on the correct way to play “I Will Follow.” Calling out the changes to Page, Edge looks momentarily uncomfortable, as if he’s thinking, Who am I to tell Jimmy Page how to play guitar? But within moments, the three men make a massive sound.
The Edge and White don’t dare pick up their guitars when Page shows them how he chords “Whole Lotta Love.” The apprentices sit in awe as the sorcerer lays down the seismic riff that inspired millions to pick up the instrument. For a fleeting second, The Edge and White share sidelong glances, both undoubtedly thinking the same thing: How cool is this!
“I have to admit, I was thinking the same thing,” Guggenheim says. “Getting the three of them together was so important, but I was scared to death: Would they get along? Would they have anything to say to one another? What if only two guys hit it off and the third guy felt left out?
“But everything worked out beautifully. And yes, when you see Jimmy Page play ‘Whole Lotta Love’ right in front of you, you become 13 years old again. You’re in your room in front of the mirror, and you’re dreaming of being him one day. That’s there on the faces of The Edge and Jack White. It was on the faces of the crew. It was amazing. To me, the movie was in the can when we nailed that scene.”
Recently, Guitar World conducted a three-man guitar summit of its own by assembling Page, The Edge and White to recall their involvement in It Might Get Loud. The three icons were more than happy to discuss what The Edge calls “one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’m so glad we took part in it, and of course, I’m honored to be in the company of the other guys. Who wouldn’t be?”
GUITAR WORLD I assume you’ve all been asked to appear in other “rock” films and music documentaries. What made you want to get involved with It Might Get Loud?
JIMMY PAGE Davis contacted me and outlined the project. He had just done the Al Gore film, but he was obviously a music fan, and I liked that. He had passion. And one thing he said was, “First, we’ll have an interview and I’ll record it, but it won’t be on-camera—more of a get-to-know-you thing and to build some momentum.” And I thought, Hey, that’s cool. The whole thing grew out of that.
THE EDGE I was told that they wanted to go after the guitar not just in technical terms; they wanted to explore the reason why people pick up the instrument—what is it about the guitar that offers people the opportunity to express something that they couldn’t in any other way? The approach was going to be more sophisticated than what we’ve seen before.
I met Davis, and we really hit it off. We talked for hours about creativity and the state of the planet. Then he mentioned Jimmy Page and Jack White, and I thought those were great choices. That’s when I decided to take the plunge.
GW Jack, you weren’t so sure at first, were you?
JACK WHITE I talked to Davis, and I thought, I don’t know… It seemed a little too “out there.” But what sold me was that he didn’t know what he wanted to do. That spoke volumes to me, for someone to relinquish control and let things happen while the camera rolled. And, of course, when he said Jimmy Page and The Edge…well, what can you say? [laughs]
GW So the big selling point was that you guys were going to guide the movie, that it was going to be cinema vérité: “whatever happens happens.”
PAGE I knew exactly what Davis was going for. It might have been nice for him to discuss a few numbers beforehand, you know: “Do you want to have a crack at these songs?” But that wasn’t part of the equation. He wanted to see how we’d relate under unchartered circumstances.
None of us had ever played together before, and I think that was interesting, because each of us defines an era, if you like.
THE EDGE Davis explained that what he likes to do is just talk. And from the conversations he has with the people he’s filming, that’s how he gets a sense of the heartbeat of the movie. And believe me, I find it incredibly hard to talk about music and guitar playing. In my mind, that’s the reason why I pick up the guitar, because it’s easier to express complex feelings and ideas with the instrument than to explain them.
When I found out that Davis was far more interested in that side of the human story, the driving force of what makes us pick up the instrument, I knew he was on to something.
GW The fact that you were the only three names considered for the film, was that a big part of your decision to do it? If Davis or Thomas had floated other guitarists as possibilities, would you have been as inclined to sign on?
THE EDGE There was something very appealing with the trio of guitarists Davis had come up with. It showed a great insight and judgment.
PAGE And Thomas Tull, he’s had such success in the world of film, but this was a real pet project for him, something he really wanted to do. His heart was definitely in the right place. Seriously cool.
GW Jimmy and Jack, you two have met before, obviously [the two appeared together on the February 2006 issue of Guitar World]. But Edge, was this your first encounter with Jimmy and Jack?
THE EDGE I had met them before, but very fleetingly, not even so much as to have a proper conversation. It was more like, “Hello. How’s it going? Love your work.” That type of thing. This was my first time sitting down to have a conversation with either of them. That’s one of the things that’s so powerful about the film, that initial breaking of the ice and people getting to know each other. It was happening live.
WHITE Jimmy and I had already hung out and he’d come to a White Stripes show, but it was my first time really meeting The Edge. I think we felt comfortable pretty quickly. And the real truth is, the guitar was the star. “Who are these three guys who play the guitar?” Who cares, you know? It’s all about the instrument.
PAGE The part where we all meet on the soundstage of the Warner Bros. lot was called “The Summit.” It was funny, because we all stayed in individual hotels and each of us had our own trailers. Davis was very keen to have that meeting be a real moment. There was no passing around of notes about what we were going to do or play.
THE EDGE He didn’t want us to talk beforehand. Everything was to be fresh.
WHITE That’s what I liked so much about the whole thing—nothing was pre-determined. Guggenheim threw out some general ideas: “Hey, why don’t you guys play ‘The Immigrant Song’ together?” or “Hey, how about ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’?”—stuff like that. And actually, we did play “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
GW You did? That jam didn’t make the finished film. Any idea why?
THE EDGE I really don’t know why. You know, I forgot that we played that one! [laughs] So much was happening. I’m sure Davis got the best of what happened, though.
I was just so into the whole thing. I think you can really see that by the look on my face and on Jack’s face when Jimmy started playing “Whole Lotta Love,” which is just the quintessential guitar riff of all time. Just to see how he played it…
GW I was going to bring that up: Jack, Edge, you two definitely had that look, like, “Holy cow, here’s the guy playing that riff!”
THE EDGE [laughs] It was great! I was trying to look at his fingering, trying to figure out how he was doing it. You know, it’s one of those things you grow up with. It’s embedded in you like a nursery rhyme.
WHITE It was certainly an electric moment. A song like “Whole Lotta Love,” we know it so well—it’s like background music, or the Bible, or a street sign. But to see the original fingers playing it…it’s like going inside the pyramids or something. [laughs]
GW And Edge, what was it like teaching Jimmy Page how to play “I Will Follow”? Talk about a kind of reverse form of hero worship: “Here, learn one of my songs, Jimmy!”
THE EDGE [laughs] What was so amazing was, there were certain chord changes that Jimmy was questioning in his head, like, This just can’t be! They didn’t seem to fit in his palette of sounds and harmonic reasoning. So that was interesting.
But you have to remember, when punk rock came along, one of its missions was to create a sound that was distinctly different from the music that had come before, and when you think of the band that was at the forefront of music at the moment, it was Zeppelin. So that early U2 song was one of the most clearly defined differences between our musical backgrounds.
It’s weird: we didn’t really talk about when we heard about each other’s music so much as we did the music that we regarded and were fans of.
GW What did you all come away having learned from one another?
THE EDGE On a very visceral level, the guitar can sound so different in different hands. I was surprised at how different our sounds and playing turned out to be. I thought there would be more of a common thread, but we were so different from one other. And that was kinda cool. I was starting to hear guitar sounds through the other guys’ ears. I was getting insight into how they listen. I loved that. They had sounds and ideas that I never would have gone after.
Jimmy got me really interested in other approaches and tones, and I think that carried through to U2’s new album. Certainly “Get on Your Boots,” there’s a little bit of the Jimmy and the Jack influence on there.
PAGE Edge is a sweetheart of a guy. Very committed to doing what he’s doing. It was very interesting to see the way his mind ticks. He’s such a sonic scientist.
WHITE What I got was…it was like the way you can hear the same story as told by three different people: each guy is going to have his own style. Edge is coming from a totally different place than me. He’s coming from a lot of effects and a lot of manipulation of the signal. And he knows he’s doing that, and there’s beauty in that, if it’s done correctly and if it’s done with respect for the instrument.
GW That brings me to something you said in the film, Jack. At one point early on you made a comment that “technology can be the death of creativity.”
WHITE It can. It sure can.
GW Given that both Jimmy and certainly The Edge have made marvelous music with technology—and Edge would probably say that his music wasn’t even possible without it—how do you stand by that statement?
WHITE It’s a fine line. You can make a great record on Pro Tools, or Pro Tools can be the bane of your existence and destroy anything beautiful you put into it. It takes a lot of restraint and respect to keep it pure. And I think The Edge does that. He uses technology to his advantage.
THE EDGE Anytime you plug a guitar into an amp, there’s technology involved. The important thing is that, if you use technology to create a unique sound and it winds up being a big part of the inspiration for what you end up playing, then it can be a great thing. Certainly, in my experience, finding a unique sound has been through the use of hardware—the abuse of hardware. It’s not about allowing the technology to dictate your sound; it’s about allowing the technology to take you in another direction.
GW The sections of the movie where you all revisit important places in your past—each was fascinating in its own way. Jack, you went back to Detroit, to the upholstery shop you used to work at. I imagine you might have thought, Wow, if it weren’t for just a little bit of luck, I might still be here.
WHITE Yeah, but that’s okay. I embrace anything that was in my past, whether it was painful or regrettable, because it’s all a learning experience to getting to the next step.
GW What was it like for you, Edge, to go back to your high school in Dublin where U2 formed?
THE EDGE I hadn’t been there for many years. Quite an extraordinary feeling. In some ways, it changed very little. Some wear and tear, but basically, it was how I remembered it. Our formative time as a band occurred there, figuring out that maybe there was something between us as musicians and writers. What flooded back to me wasn’t so much the music but the relationship building, the friendships that we still share.
GW And Jimmy, you went back to Headley Grange, which looms so large in Zeppelin lore. What was that like for you?
PAGE To be honest, it was pretty emotional going back there. It was interesting walking around it, as it’s furnished today as opposed to the shell it was back in the day. It was quite emotional going back into the hallway. It’s an extremely ambient hall. You definitely get the idea of the spectrum of the sound in that hall. Just by clapping, you can hear the natural reverb in there.
GW Near the end of the movie, you all play Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying.” How did that come about? Jimmy, did that come from you?
PAGE It did. We were playing bottleneck steel and I wanted to see how it would go. I thought it could be quite interesting. I think they kind of knew it.
WHITE That came out of us playing some slide songs. We had played “Bullet the Blue Sky,” and it built into this crescendo, and it just kind of came up to play that one. Jimmy taught us how to play it. There was a real connection happening at that point.
GW Edge and Jack, it almost seemed as if you two were a little tentative at first, as if you were pupils at the feet of the master. But then, Jimmy, you seemed to give them this little signal that said, “Go for it,” and then suddenly they loosened up and started playing in their own unique styles.
PAGE Well, that would have been the natural process of us all coming together and saying “hello” on the stage and knowing there was going to have to be some musical delivery. But Davis wanted to get a real meeting of the minds, and it turned into a real organic thing.
I have to say, it was great to hear The Edge play that song. He just went roaring into this bottleneck lead, and it was really trippy to hear him play so off-the-cuff and do it so well.
THE EDGE It was fun to delve into. There’s moments where you’re trying something out and you think, This is how it goes, and then, suddenly, music happens. That’s what happened there. It was great.
WHITE It’s funny. You can hear these connections between that song and U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing” or even some of the things that have gone on White Stripes records. Really, it all goes back to the blues.
GW Jimmy, what are your favorite parts of the movie?
PAGE There’s a couple moments I particularly like. When Jack says, “You have to have a conflict with the instrument,” I like that. [laughs] And with The Edge, when he’s sitting and listening to the tapes of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
THE EDGE That was in this little cottage in North Dublin, just after the second album was recorded. It was a place where we wrote and rehearsed for the War album.
PAGE I liked where he was listening to the tapes and showing how he shapes his sound. There are a lot of moments that really grab you. Some are quite poignant, some are really urgent.
GW Was that strange for you, Edge, playing your old demos on film for everybody to hear? Did you feel vulnerable?
THE EDGE No. [laughs] I’m beyond embarrassment about the way we operate. We’re a dysfunctional band on so many levels.
GW One of the most memorable parts of the movie is where you, Jimmy, put on your old vinyl copy of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” The look on your face, your smile—it says it all. And then you even do a little air guitar to it. That song really affected you and still does.
PAGE Sure. I was a kid when I first heard that, and I remember going, “What the hell is he doing on that?” And he was just turning up his vibrato. It was so cool! It’s just a majestic piece of music, isn’t it? Just wonderful.
GW The guitar is such a large topic when you think about it: what makes people want to play it, what makes people come at it in their own way. Do you feel the film illuminated the artistic process of playing the guitar?
PAGE I think it really does. You’ve got three real character guitarists; everybody’s so individual, with such unique styles and techniques. And yet, there is a good blend within it all, which is a wonderful thing. We’ve heard these three guitarists’ characters come through on the guitar, and now we have this very interesting forum where they can all come together.