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"To carry each other is not a burden at all but a kind of privilege." — Bono

Three Guitar Legends, One Amazing Film

@U2 reviews the documentary It Might Get Loud

Jimmy Page. The Edge. Jack White.

Guitar players have no reason to read any further. Take the day off work or school, and find the loudest movie theater you can. Go ahead. The film was made for you. It's like "guitar porn."

Led Zeppelin fans, I'm about to say something to you that will make you stop reading and head to your nearest theater. Non-fans probably won't know why it's a huge deal when I tell you that Jimmy Page will take us to see the hallway/staircase where John Bonham recorded his "When The Levee Breaks" drum parts. Off you go, now.

Jack White fans. Unfortunately, due to my, er, age, I need to report that I have absolutely no frame of reference for White or The White Stripes or any of the other half-dozen bands he plays with.

And finally, for U2 fans, I'll give you two reasons: 1) You will see "The Bulletin Board" at Mount Temple Comprehensive School; and 2) In Edge's kitchen, he will put an old cassette in a player, mutter "not sure what this is", and we will hear a 4-track recording of an early run through of "Where the Streets Have No Name" complete with extra high-hat, and Bono in the background counting out "4-5-6! 4-5-6!" to the rest of the band trying to figure out Edge's rhythm structure. A perfect edit takes us whooshing to the Slane Elevation show just as the lights come on, and as I sat there in open-mouthed amazement, I realized that none of us have seen that show on a big screen before.

If you're a student of musical history, the director, Davis Guggenheim, could scarcely have found three better guitarists to follow. James Patrick Page is 65; David Howell Evans is 47; and John Anthony Gillis (more on that name later) is 34. Page was there for the very birth of heavy metal, '60s prog rock, and the era of the sessions guitar player -- and his band had its own plane, "The Starship," some 30 years before U2's Elevation Air took off. Edge proves to be a good tour guide on the political influence of music, how punk rock made attitude as important as musicianship, and the cost of sonic perfection. White leads us through a depressed Detroit, hearing in blues music from the 1930s an expression at the anger he felt in the late 1980s when you were looked down on if you could play an instrument.

I need to get my own prejudices out of the way.

1) U2 is my favorite band. I've seen them more than 50 times, my first show being in 1984 in San Francisco. I have never waited for an autograph from any other celebrity of any kind, but I have waited for the band, both backstage and at hotels. When I talk to close friends, many of whom I've met because of our love of the band, we still marvel that somehow, way back, we chose the "right" band to fall in love with. My first show was 25 years ago, and I'll be seeing them again in October. Same lineup. Bigger stadium. Still the biggest band in the world. One of the things I love about them is that they are, by far, the best example of a band being larger than the sum of its parts. To a ridiculous degree. Any one of the four of them on their own or in a different band would probably not inspire any of the adoration they now claim. Except, maybe Edge.

2) John Bonham died when I was 13 years old. People sometimes play that "What single concert do you wish you could have attended?" game. Music fans answer all over the place, Elvis' '68 Comeback Special, the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show or at Shea Stadium, The Who when Keith Moon was alive, that Motown TV show where Michael Jackson first moonwalked, Springsteen's Born in the USA Tour at the Meadowlands, the Nirvana Unplugged show. U2 fans usually say Red Rocks or Point Depot New Year's Eve or Live Aid. If I could go back in time, I'd go to a Led Zeppelin concert from 1977 or so. I'm not even sure it'd be a good show. Back then, people sat in chairs to listen to the 20-minute laser-aided compositions, while inhaling God-knows-what. (In March, 1975, they played a version of "Dazed and Confused" that lasted a butt-numbing 43 minutes.) But to just be in the room with them. What was that like? I've been in the room with U2 before and that was pretty cool. Much like U2 is greater than the sum of its parts, Led Zeppelin is probably not quite as great as the sum of its parts. Because those parts are spectacular. John Paul Jones is a far better bassist (and keyboard player) than Adam Clayton will ever be. Bono has only recently challenged Robert Plant, in his prime, as a vocalist (though not lyricist -- Bono wins there.) And John Henry Bonham is the best drummer that will ever live. Period. End of sentence. I had a Zeppelin poster over my bed until I graduated from high school. There is one important thing that Led Zeppelin and U2 have in common. When John Bonham died, there was never even a conversation that the band would go on without him. Can you imagine three of the members of U2 touring with anyone else but the fourth? Me neither.

3) I probably have one White Stripes album. As I went in to It Might Get Loud, I thought that Jack was one of those trying-really-hard-to-appear-to-not-be-trying-really-hard-to-be-cool kids. Why the hat, why the bowtie, why the old-fashioned car, why live in Tennessee? I must say I came out feeling the most differently about him, as he was the one I knew the least about. He also has the most to overcome. Page, Edge, White. One of these things is not like the others. Yet.

The conceit of the film is that three guitarists from different eras, with different backgrounds and different styles, would come together in a warehouse to talk about their love of the guitar and music in general. And they're bringing their guitars (and guitar techs -- Dallas Shoo gets plenty of screen time). This is referred to in the press notes as "The Summit." Seeing three professional guitarists discuss their craft would probably be compelling enough, even if two of them weren't my favorites. But this "Summit" is only a small portion of the film, and not the most exciting part. For those viewers looking forward to a concert recital by the three men, you may be disappointed.

We will spend a great deal of time with each of the three individually, in hometowns, in guitar shops, next to record players, surrounded by amps, and in the backs of cars as they each take us on their own musical journey. While this can be seen as self-indulgent on Behind the Music, none of them comes across as conceited. Which is weird because they're superstar guitarists. The difference here, I think, is that they are reminiscing on behalf of the guitar. The participants know that the guitar itself is the star, not the player. We will visit places and hear songs important to the courtship of each man and his guitar. This isn't a film about stardom; it's a film about musicians.

It might be a good time to point out that we will never really hear one of the three say that they've been influenced by either of the other two. Edge won't tell stories of playing along with Zeppelin records, White won't even acknowledge that the other two exist, claiming instead to study early 20th-century Blues. But each of them will, to an incredible degree, give praise to dozens of players who came before them.

We get no clue as to whether the three men even like each other's music. And this proves to be a help to the film, not a hindrance. There is no hero worship here (except by us and the director) and the three men have such different styles that none of them could be accused of stealing from the others. But it also leaves the meeting between the three as sort of cold. This was the first time any of the three had met, and it didn't appear to be the beginning of any musical collaborations. In fact, I don't think there is any way in hell that the three of them went out for a beer afterwards. I'd be surprised if any of them had spoken with any of the others since the film was completed. Again, the guitar is the focus, not the individual.

Bono-haters will be happy to know that he doesn't appear on camera saying anything. Fans will recognize the first clips we see of Edge as he does yoga on the roof of his Miami hotel while holding a BlackBerry. We then go to Hanover Quay where Edge and Dallas try to lead us in a tutorial on the effects pedals. It takes both men to change the music to the exact sound Edge was looking for. If it wasn't clear before this film: no Dallas Shoo, no Edge. Seriously. It's to the point where Dallas can read his mind. Edge fiddles with something, Dallas stares, trying to remember this exact setting for the next time Edge wants it. Edge plays a bit of "Get On Your Boots." He also plays "Elevation" without any pedals and then with the full-court technology press. Edge will play guitar at Hanover, at his house, at the warehouse, and on the Irish coast.

In Edge's kitchen, he'll pull out the 4-track of "Where the Streets Have No Name." He'll give us a tour of Mount Temple School, including Mr. MacKenzie's music room, where Edge says the band pushed the chairs to the side and tried to make a ruckus. He also jumps up on the stage-like platform where the band would play early gigs. He jokes that he stood at stage right for a reason he can't remember "and I have been ever since." And then, set your watches, because you will see the early single "Street Mission" on the big screen in all of its big-hair glory. And, though it may require rewinding when the DVD comes out, a full five-minute ear-to-ear smile is seen on the face of the once-jovial Larry Mullen. Edge is filmed all over Dublin, providing his own voiceover. He's on the docks at sunrise, and these scenes are interspersed with the October photo shoot on those same docks.

Edge remembers the lengthy guitar solos of the 1960s and '70s and how self-indulgent they seemed. We see a schematic of an electric guitar, and Edge describes how he and his brother, Dick, built it, right down to wrapping the magnets. He was an electronics geek even at a young age. He recalls first with frustration the fact that Top of the Pops was the only TV show that Irish kids could watch to learn about and hear new music. Then he turns downright giddy when he remembers seeing The Jam perform on the show. Twice the same year. His life would never be the same. No longer was musicianship more important than attitude. Suddenly, the fact that the band couldn't really play their instruments was no longer a detriment to their breaking big.

Edge recounts a trip to New York City with his family. "People looked and talked just like they did in the movies," he says. He saw a guitar in a window and went in to play it. Here's your U2 pullquote: "Twenty minutes in that store defined the sound of the band. I thought, this better work." While we watch an animated guitar, amp, and effects pedal, Edge explains how he discovered that creative use of echo could fill in notes when he wasn't playing any, resulting in a much more full sound; how he takes away notes from chords, making them more clear. This is the part that U2 cover band guitarists will rewind over and over again on home video.

Edge takes us to the house where War was written and some demos recorded. He was full of anger about the Troubles and was concerned that he couldn't express that anger with his guitar. Bono said something to the effect of "Go off and find it, Edge" or something else equally Bonoesque. Edge goes on at some length about looking at trees in an orchard and suddenly realizing that this group of trunks and branches and chaos was actually lined up in perfect clarity. Or something. Edge's introspection resulted in "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

And yes, toward the end of the film, Edge stands in front of the very bulletin board where a young Larry Mullen Jr. placed a notice looking for students to join his band. Edge reflects thoughtfully on what would have happened if he hadn't responded to that first notice. He says he'd still be playing guitar, but with whom?

They each get to perform for the other two at the Summit. Edge will play "Elevation" while the other two look on. (He gets credit for the title, saying, "This might get loud for a second" as he fiddles with his equipment.) White will play something as well, but the real fun -- and my favorite moment of the entire film -- is when Page stands up, while the other two remain in their comfy leather chairs. Page coolly rips into "Whole Lotta Love" and Edge jumps to his feet like a tweener at a Jonas Brothers concert, his smile huge, his eyes pinned to the fingers of Jimmy Page. White is a bit cooler and leans in, tapping his foot, and also staring. The two of them appear to be trying to decipher the mystery of the universe. Edge is standing and actually moving slowly towards Page while he plays, his over-sized brain taking in every nuance of the song. It was the coolest.

Having said all of this, I'm not entirely sure that the film will work for everyone. Fans of any of the three men's music, or the guitar itself will have themselves a ball. Musical historians can find something to enjoy in the way that music has evolved from 1957 until today. But for those who see the trailer and think they'll be treated to a concert by the three men, think again. We see relatively little footage from this heralded meeting. Most of the information is compiled during the individual portions. The warehouse also features a box of records that we never hear. We can only hope that a DVD extra will be the complete warehouse meeting including songs listened to and played and any demonstrations the men did for each other.

When I walked out of the theater, I realized that my face was hurting because I had been smiling so much while watching it. I may have shouted (or at least mumbled) at the screen. You rarely get a chance to see musicians you love on a large screen, so it's right to feel a little giddy when you can. I would suggest something that I normally never do. Go see this in the loudest theater with the biggest screen you can, even if you normally avoid the chains like a plague, as I do. This film needs to be felt and experienced. Don't wait for the DVD.

© @U2/Cummins, 2009.