Published Sep 29, 2008It Might Get Loud, the new documentary from Academy Award-winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) received its world premiere at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. The film gained more media attention than other music-themed festival documentaries (including portraits of Patti Smith, Youssou N'Dour and Chess Records), thanks to the presence of the three rock guitar gods it profiles: Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White. A day after its premiere, the axe-wielding trio (plus Guggenheim and producers Thomas Tull and Leslie Chilcott) appeared for a press conference that inevitably attracted plenty of paparazzi and equally inevitable (but fruitless) queries about a Led Zeppelin reunion.
Here's how the press conference went.
Moderator George Stromboulopoulos: We'll begin with you, Davis. It Might Get Loud is a very ambitious project. How did it start?
Davis Guggenheim: I was called to come to Thomas Tull's office. He said, "I want to make a documentary on the electric guitar. Although there have been films on the subject, none have really captured it. We have to capture it. A lot of films became encyclopedic. We wanted to tell a story and hopefully get underneath to what the contributions of these incredible people actually is.
Thomas Tull: It's a little weird to say it, sitting next to these three guys, but I played guitar since I was 14 or 15. I always wondered what is it about this instrument more than any other that just captures people's imagination? As Davis made the point, nothing I'd ever seen really felt to me like, "Yeah. That's why you pick this up. That's why you take the journey. In terms of pop culture, Guitar Hero was the No. 1 game at the time, Rolling Stone had put out its Top 50 list, it was really in the zeitgeist. So I thought this would be a great project to do, and Davis is the top documentarian on the planet. I was able to call him, and it went from there.
Leslie Chilcott: I got a call. Davis and I had just started our company [Electric Kinney Films]. Our last documentary was a very serious subject [climate change], and I was just thrilled to do this. The big question was could we get the get the guys that we want. We wanted three generations and three different styles.
Stromboulopoulos: How did you get involved, Jimmy?
Jimmy Page: I was fascinated by the idea, and then when I heard that Jack and the Edge were coming in, I was even more fascinated. Obviously I knew Davis' work from before this. I must say the way Davis presented it to me was quite unique. My forte is playing music. I'm more at home playing onstage or writing or recording music than talking about it. He'd obviously thought long and hard about this, and he said 'the way we're going to approach this is to record this like an audio interview. It gave us a chance to get to know each other and it broke the ice somewhat.
Stromboulopoulos: How about you, Edge?
The Edge: Well, having met Davis, I just liked him a lot personally. He made all these promises, many of which he broke [laughs]. He persuaded me. I said, "Well, let's just start and we'll see how it goes. I guess like Jimmy I was a little uncertain about how it could work. Musicians talking about their work. I thought to myself that this could be interesting if he catches us on a good day, or it could be incredibly boring and just so dull. So we had an interview, and at the end of it I thought, "he's onto something.
Stromboulopoulos: And you, Jack?
Jack White: You hear the names of those involved, and it's hard not to think about it, all day and all week long. You get a bit nervous 'cause you want to make sure it's done right. I could see the film wasn't about one particular thing. It wasn't just me being filmed playing loud. It's about 20 or 30 different things, all relating to the instrument, and I think that was unique. Guggenheim: When we were filming Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth, we stumbled on an incredible process. When the crew would arrive with all the lights and gear, the interview would somehow change, with the formality of it. That would come through. Over time, the less I had there in the way of crew. By the end, the most intimate and personal stuff would come from the two of us, alone in a hotel room, talking for hours. That was the end process, so I thought, "why not start this one that way? So the first interview with Jimmy was in the hotel, and we just talked for three hours. Just audio, no cameras. Then with the Edge in Burbank one day and London the next, the same thing. So I took these audio interviews home and cut them as stories. Put them up on the wall. I edited a lot of the stories and then I felt ready to shoot. So I hope that what you'll see will be something intimate and personal. Jack's interviews suggested where Jack's story should go, and with the Edge and Jimmy. That was a very organic process.
Stromboulopoulos: Did it end up being something different from what you'd first imagined?
Guggenheim: Absolutely. That is the beauty of it. I learned a lot from working with musicians. Instead of deciding at the beginning where you want to go, you take a more improvisational approach, to allow things to happen. You have to trust it, take the chance you will stumble and fall. As a filmmaker, I was following what these guys do naturally.
Stromboulopoulos: Jimmy and the Edge, you two guys have the luxury of having a singer do most of the talking onstage. The idea of sitting down and talking in camera, how was that process for you?
Page: I certainly learned quite a lot about myself from it. I think we all did. Edge: It is quite terrifying to get into the process of telling your personal story for the first time. I felt vulnerable, but Davis knew what was crucial for the story. I think what he has done is make a film which isn't just about the technical side of the guitar, but about the music and the personal journeys that brought the three of us to the place where we are now, doing what we do.
Stromboulopoulos: How about you, Jack? You are the front-man, but you got to play a different role here.
White: It was good to tackle one side of being a musician and a songwriter, looking at it through the angle of this instrument. I think the interesting part of this film is that there are millions of guitar players out there, and here are three of them. All different generations too, and through that process, you learn a lot about what was happening in music. There was the blues boom in England, for Jimmy, there was Ireland and the punk scene for the Edge, and then with me what was happening in Detroit and with garage rock at the turn of the century. There are common threads, and uncommon threads. You could call the guitar the McGuffin of the film.
Stromboulopoulos: I have to get this out of the way, the elephant in the room. What is happening with the Led Zeppelin reunion, and would you consider a reunion with Jack and the Edge onstage, or as an album together?
White: Well, I'd play drums!
Edge: I'd do something if the money was great [laughs]. I think that what you see over the course of the film is three individuals who share a love of music and, by the end of the film, a genuine affection. Who knows where that might go? I wouldn't want to put anything out there, but certainly there is respect there.
White: It was about enjoying this now. I was looking at myself on film watching Jimmy play "Whole Lotta Love, and I'm going "stop smiling. I had such a stupid grin on my face.
Guggenheim: Everyone on set walked over to see Jimmy's fingers then.
Stromboulopoulos: A question for the Edge. In the film you talk about how you sometimes believed the guitar was dead, but it kept coming back. Can you elaborate on that, and why you think the guitar endures?
Edge: I don't quite know why the guitar endures, but I'm really glad it does. It is an instrument that seems to be so versatile. It seems to be able to make that jump to the next generation and where music can go. I think it's fair to say that hip-hop has kicked rock'n'roll's ass in terms of innovation. For a long time it seemed like the guitar was in a drought, but it's so great to see a resurgence happening. You hear something you've never heard before. It is an instrument that is constantly being reinvented, and that's really exciting to me.
White: When I was growing up in Detroit, it was in a predominantly black neighbourhood. It was very uncool to play the guitar then. I used to play on the front porch a lot, and the people walking by certainly didn't think it was very entertaining!
Stromboulopoulos: There's a great scene in the film with your son.
White: No, that's the nine-year-old me! That's me at nine years old, and I'm teaching myself how to play guitar.
Stromboulopoulos: How do you feel about the way music is taught in schools? Wouldn't it be great if teachers allowed student free rein?
White: Well when I was in high school, I took a class in percussion, with the marimba and mallets and things. I kind of wandered around before class started and I would play these things. I would get yelled at, "put that down. That's school property. That is so terrible. Never tell people to put down the instrument that they are taking the interest in. That should be talked about more.
Stromboulopoulos: Tell us about the idea of having the nine-year-old Jack White in the film?
White: I was less interested in the biographical side. I thought, "let's engage in the idea of my teaching myself to play the instrument at that age. If my older self had been in the room at the same time, what would occur? What could I tell myself that would speed things up a little bit? Don't worry about playing perfect notes, don't even worry about standard tunings. Jimmy and I talked about this. When we first started playing slide, we didn't know you could use an opening tuning and just play across the fret like that. I wanted to go back and tell myself that you don't have to follow some rules.
Stromboulopoulos: What was the reaction you each had when you first saw the finished film?
Edge: It was a relief that I didn't totally hate myself in it. Just small moments. I learned a lot. I so much enjoyed seeing Jimmy Page play. The "Ramble On segment was mind-blowing. That's the kind of thing that made me want to pick up the guitar in the first place. And seeing Jack's beautiful playing, and the genius involved in taking his band and playing for the Chelsea Pensioners [a film highlight]. Just as a piece of performance art, I couldn't believe how brilliant he is at that. That's the sign of a true artist [White blushes, pulls his hat down over his face].
Page: That was the first time I saw the finished film, yesterday. I found it fascinating and illuminating.
White: There were parts of the film that became more emotional than I ever imagined the film might be. It made me ask questions, like being white and born in the '70s, I don't know if I have access to the blues. Am I allowed to do this? You're kind of told by society things that can kill your passion and your ambition. I know where I came from I figured early on that it wasn't going to happen. I don't know anyone who works at a record label. Who's going to care? Who's going to listen?
Stromboulopoulos: This is for the Edge. In the making of the film, was there any moment of insecurity?
Edge: There was no time to be insecure. The way Davis set this up, was to have this whole stage set up in L.A., with all the instruments on there. None of us had had time to compare notes, so all we were concerned about was getting to know each other musically.
Stromboulopoulos: What did the three of you learn about each other? And what do you think is the future of the guitar and the place it may be going?
Page: What the film told me, and I'm a firm believer in this, is that when somebody gets into an instrument and becomes fully proficient on guitar, then his character comes through. You can hear the character, as with all those guitarists we know and love. Here, you have real character players, and that's what you get to hear.
Edge: I learned so many things, it's hard to single just one out. I suppose I didn't think we'd hit it off quite as easily as we did. That was a bit of a surprise and a pleasure. Even though our influences are so different, in some ways it boils down to what is great, and the passion that goes into making great music. Whether it's blues or punk rock or garage rock, it's about the attitude and the passion. I learned about music I didn't know about. I'd heard of Link Wray, but didn't know much about his music. It made me want to go back and listen to some records I'd missed.
White: I learned a lot about how Jimmy was exposed to so many different kinds of music, from when he was a session player. I though how cool it'd be to have that as your 9 to 5 job. I'd have regular jobs where I spent all my time daydreaming about creating when I got off work. To play music as your day job, you'd learn so much about songwriting and how to approach it. And through Edge, I learned a lot about politics and music. I also learned how there can be moments of great emotionality in the most obscure song you can find on a vinyl album that no-one has ever heard of. Those are a couple of things I learned.
Stromboulopoulos: To Tom. What did you learn?
Tull: Oftentimes when you set out to do something, you have big aspirations for it. In this case, it went better than I ever could have imagined. When you get to meet people you're a huge fan of, there's always that chance they won't be as great as you thought. Honestly, these guys, not only as musicians but as people, exceeded my huge expectations. It was a privilege to stand back and watch the whole thing. All three were just so generous. It's an experience I won't forget.
Chilcott: For me personally, in the beginning I thought that each one of these guys was very, very different. I think as the film goes along, by the end you see that they are much more alike. Each person goes about the creative process in a different way, but you see their similarities.
Stromboulopoulos: A question for Jimmy. What were you feeling when you were listening to some of those old records you played in the film? And on behalf of my entire generation, can we expect a Led Zeppelin reunion?
Page: I learned something about myself in there. I learned that the kid in me from 50 years ago is still there. Listening to music was my whole world then. That's how I learned, from listening to those records. I guess it worked out at the end of the day. I'm a slow learner in life as well [laughs].
Stromboulopoulos: For the Edge. After all these years in U2, how difficult is it to reinvent yourselves with every album?
Edge: Every album has to be like starting again. That is something about our band, it's in our DNA. We only get fired up is when we are entering uncharted territory. We fail most of the time too. The process is still mysterious and frustrating. We can be inspired by hearing something new. I remember hearing that first White Stripes album, and being totally blown away. Here's this new sound coming out of Detroit. That's a thrill, and I think that is why our music seems keep regenerating itself. We are like sponges. We are open to what other people are doing. We are interested in so many things.
Stromboulopoulos: Of the next generation of guitarists, is there anybody that stands out for you?
White: I always tell musicians what I told Jimmy. Don't lose hope! As for guitarists right now, Nick Zinner is one.
Edge: Secret Machines.
Stromboulopoulos: For Mr. Page. There are reports that you, Jason Bonham and John Paul Jones are recording right now, and there are rumours swirling that Led Zeppelin will tour. What can you tell us?
Page: We're not recording. We played at the O2 [London stadium]. That was our reunion. Basically that was it. For a reunion you need four members. Yes, Jason and John Paul sometimes jam together, but there's nothing as monumental as what people have speculated. .