The M/C Review: 'White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights' rocks
It's been an interesting year for Jack White on film. At Sundance this spring, I saw and loved "It Might Get Loud," which finally got some theatrical dates last month. It's a documentary about guitar legends The Edge, Jimmy Page, and White, who absolutely stole the movie out from under the other two guys. His love for performance is palpable in that movie, as is his love of rock and blues history, which seems driven by genuine unfettered love instead of commerce.
That film is largely about the love of guitar itself, and the way each player approaches the instrument differently. This film's a little different. Jack White explains:
"Having never done a tour of Canada, Meg and I thought it was high time to go whole hog. We want to take this tour to the far reaches of the Canadian landscape. From the ocean to the permafrost. The best way for us to do that is ensure that we perform in every province and territory in the country, from the Yukon to Prince Edward Island. Another special moment of this tour is the show which will occur in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia on July 14, The White Stripes' Tenth Anniversary."
Emmett Malloy shot the tour, and the result isn't what I would call a concert film, although there is some strong dynamic performance footage in the movie. Instead, this is more about the rhythms and demands of a full tour and what happens to a band emotionally over the time they spend on the road. More than anything, the film serves as a really canny bit of rock and roll mythmaking.
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I'd call myself a casual fan of the band. I have four or five of their records, and when "Icky Thump" came out, it got a lot of play in my car for a few months. Enough that Toshi calls the CD "rock and roll" when he tells me to play it, which is often. He particularly likes to sing along to "Conquest" at top volume or to play air guitar to the opening track, "Icky Thump." I consider "Seven Nation Army" to be one of the perfect rock riffs, immediately burned into your brain once you hear it. I remember when I first heard about them and read articles that played up the confusion about whether or not Jack and Meg are brother and sister, husband and wife, former lovers, best friends, or what exactly. I never considered it important enough to do the legwork to find out definitively, and even something as simple as going to Wikipedia seems somehow to be unneeded for me, like I'm cheating. I like that they play with identity and truth that way. I like the image they've created for the band, and I like how playful their approach to their media identity is. I don't need to know any truth beyond the one they present to me.
This film offers no answers if you want clarification about the private lives of the White Stripes away from music. Instead, it offers a piercing glimpse at the way Jack and Meg White play together onstage and the way that dynamic changes from show to show, song to song, and sometimes from moment to moment. The tour isn't just made up of regular gigs. They play a number of spontaneous smaller shows during the days, trying to use unconventional venues like rec centers and boats and bowling alleys, and they make sure they interact with the communities they visit. They don't come across as rock stars who are just going through the motions, either. These are two people who are enjoying their tour, and who look forward to that time onstage together every night. You can tell that there's no vanity involved here when some of the songs that are used are actually not the greatest, most polished versions of these songs. There are flubs, mistakes, and moments where things just don't come into focus the way you can tell they're supposed to. There are bad nights on tours, and the White Stripes didn't push Malloy to just present the good side of things.
Meg White comes across as acutely shy and private offstage, and then when she starts playing, she transforms completely. She's adorable, with an unpolished, unconsidered presence. I never got the feeling I was watching an act. Everything, from the way she keeps count by tossing her head from side to side like she's one of the dancers in "A Charlie Brown Christmas' to the way she handles herself in interviews in the film to the amazing final scene where a song that Jack plays on piano drives Meg to tears... it all becomes a persuasive portrait of who this person is without ever feeling invasive, and that's no easy trick.
The film is very rough and hand-held, but Malloy has a sharp eye, and more than that, he seems to be very good at capturing a moment without distorting or manipulating it, and the film sounds amazing. This is one of those things that I'm glad I saw theatrically, because at home, you won't really get the same visceral response that I got from this wonderful film in the theater.
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