Spoiler alert: It does get loud. A documentary about rock guitar players and their approaches to and obsessions with the instrument, Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud immediately turns the volume up to 12, allowing the complex tones and textures of the notes to reverberate through the theater. Just as some films' visuals demand to be seen on the big screen, this movie is best heard on a theater sound system.
In January 2008, Guggenheim brought together three guitar players from different generations for what he calls "the summit," presenting their disparate musical philosophies and recounting their histories with the instrument. It might have been a dull exercise in pop history had he not corralled three intelligent, well-spoken, and impassioned artists: Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, the Edge of U2, and Jack White of the White Stripes.
Each of them speaks at length about his bands, his guitars, his influences, and his modifications, which allows the similarities and differences between them to come through. The Edge is a devoted gearhound who travels with a massive rack of pedals and effects that transform his instrument into something alien, while White, who initially comes across as self-consciously affected (he even has a Mini-Me), studiously decries such technological doodads, favoring a more organic, often violent music-making process. "You pick a fight" with the guitar, he says, "and you have to win." Later, Guggenheim shows footage of him playing a solo with bleeding fingers. Ultimately, just as White's affectations become endearing, his love of analog recording and old, damaged instruments is the same as the Edge's obsessions, just directed toward different devices.
Page is the most balanced presence in It Might Get Loud, although it's never clear whether that's due to his age and experience, to his own tastes, or to some combination of both. Of the three, his story is perhaps the most affecting: He used the guitar to escape his drab working-class neighborhood, playing with skiffle bands as a teenager and becoming a respected session musician at a young age. During another dull Muzak session he realized that he had simply traded one workaday existence for another and decided to retire from music. It wasn't long, however, before he was crafting some of the heaviest riffs ever recorded.
At times, Guggenheim's quick cuts between each performer's stories feel abrupt and intrusive, as if he's taking too much care to shape their recollections. Nevertheless, It Might Get Loud manages to avoid the easy pitfalls: There is no fawning fanboy hagiography nor any pleas for "real" (i.e., guitar-based, white) rock-and-roll, even when the three of them close out the film with an off-the-cuff version of the Band's "The Weight."
In fact, the most effective testimonial for the rock guitar may be the look of boyish joy on Page's face when he puts on an old 45 of Link Wray's "Rumble." For a few sweet moments, he becomes the kid he once was, and It Might Get Loud makes his enthusiasm resonate as loudly as his Strat.