If you’re a fan of rock and roll and movies about how legendary rock bands came together as well as how they went about creating their music (and in some cases, why they fell apart), then you’ll probably be interested in It Might Get Loud, the new doc from Davis Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
He clearly decided to take a different approach to the rock doc, while bringing together three legendary guitar players: Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, The Edge of U2 and Jack White of the White Stripes (and a couple of other bands). More than just a spoken history the bands and their roles as guitarist, the film is centered around a two-day summit meeting between the three musical legends to discuss their chosen musical instrument. The results are far more insightful than any straight rock doc might ever be, because not only do we learn things about their past straight from their own mouths, but we visit some of the landmarks that played a pivotal part in their contributions to musical history. Then on top of that, if you can imagine Jimmy Page jamming on “I Will Follow” or The Edge and Jack White playing “Whole Lotta Love,” that’s just part of the charm of Guggenheim’s movie, as well as what makes it the must-see movie for any rock aficionado.
ComingSoon.net saw the movie at the Toronto Film Festival nearly a year ago but we finally had a chance to get on the phone to talk to Guggenheim about his new movie last week.
ComingSoon.net: I saw the movie eleven months ago at the Toronto Film Festival but didn’t get to see the whole movie, since I had to get to another movie, but I did watch about the first 80 minutes or so…
Davis Guggenheim: Are you the guy who walked out? I’ve been trying to find him and kill him!
CS: I was the guy who walked out but I had another screening I had to do for an interview. I figured I could at least watch what I could and then catch the rest later.
Guggenheim: Jimmy Page talked to me and said, “Who’s that guy who walked out?”
CS: Really? Jimmy Page was outside the press screening and he saw me walk out? How embarrassing.
Guggenheim: No, no, no, I’m joking. I’m trying to entertain myself as I do press.
(A few minutes later, after the parademics have been called to revive the interviewer who thought that Jimmy Page will forever know him as “the guy who walked out of my movie,” we continue…)
CS: Well, I know how tough it is to do the interviews, so I guess you have to do what you can to keep it entertaining. Anyway, what was the original pitch that producer Thomas Tull gave you? Did he have the three guys ready to go and just said to you, “Make a movie”?
Guggenheim: No, he didn’t have the three guys. He just wanted to make a film about the electric guitar, and then we all sat down–me and him and Leslie Chilcott, my producer–and said, “How do we make a different kind of rock and roll documentary?” It’s not about the car wrecks and the hair but it’s about the music and the songwriting and the thread between all these great guitarists from generation to generation. It became this big idea about why don’t we bring these three great guitarists together for two days and have them share stories and play their songs?
CS: Was the plan just to film the summit meeting between these three guitar players or did you know you’d have to do separate interviews and follow them around from the get-go?
Guggenheim: The plan was to tell them nothing, the idea being when they came together, the questions they had for each other would be more meaningful than any questions any of us would have for them. So when the Edge asks Jimmy, “How did you do that?” and Jimmy picks up the guitar and plays “Whole Lotta Love,” that’s a pretty incredible moment.
CS: Had you spent a lot of time with the three guys before they finally met?
Guggenheim: I flew to London and spent two days in a hotel room with Jimmy just talking, recording the interview and from that interview came 90% of the material you see in the movie, his emotional reflections of what his path was as an artist. The same I did with Edge and the same I did with Jack, so all that voice-over that you hear comes from that, and that became the map of how we would follow their stories, so if Jimmy talked about going to Headley Grange and writing “Levee Breaks” and how that song came about then we would tell the story of that song.
CS: How did you and Tom decide that it was going to be these three specific guitarists that you’d try to get to appear in the movie?
Guggenheim: Me, Tom and Leslie sat there and said, “Who do we want?” I really wanted Jimi Hendrix to be there but he wasn’t available, and it was instinctual. There were so many great guitarists we could have had. We didn’t want to leave people out as much as we wanted to find just a few so that we could really complete… If we had every great guitarist, you’d have fifty people in there, and we wouldn’t have enough time to talk to everybody and tell their story.
CS: Who was the first guy you approached?
Guggenheim: Jimmy Page. Everyone was saying, “You can’t get him. He’s never done anything like this before.” For forty years (he rarely did interviews) but we were like, “We have to try.” So we fly to New York and met his manager and at first he said, “Maybe.” Told me he was in London, so we flew to London just to sit down and have tea with him and I pitched him this idea. The big idea was that there are no rock critics in this movie, no rock historians, no ex-girlfriends, there’s no lead singers, it’s all them. Just them telling their own story. By doing that, that made the film very, very personal.
CS: It certainly doesn’t feel like any other documentary or rock doc, but there are many things that come straight from their personalities, like some of the mystical stuff that Jimmy talks about and some of Jack’s roots and eccentricities. When you did the interviews, did they throw out these ideas about things they wanted to try rather than just talking?
Guggenheim: The plan was that we had no plan, and if we had written something, it would have been like what you’d read on Google or Wikipedia and what we really wanted to do, what makes documentaries so tough, particularly for rock and roll, is no access to these guys, so the idea was to hear from them and let them tell their story. If the Edge talked about writing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and how that was a huge breakthrough for him, like it was. The band needed a song and they’d had all that success but they needed a song and he went out to this little cottage and wrote that song. When he tells that story, it’s meaningful, so he told us where to go. That’s why I think the movie is so fascinating, because these guys are telling these stories.
CS: I think when you go back with The Edge to the school where U2 first met was one of the moments that we really haven’t seen before despite having heard about it over the years when they did interviews. Did that just come out of talking to him and then you just decided to call him up and go there and he said “Okay”?
Guggenheim: Again, it came from those interviews. We talked about his songwriting and he goes, “Well, when we played together, we didn’t know how to play?” And I’d ask “Where did you play?” and he said, “We’d be in this classroom in Mr. McKinsey’s office” so then after the interview, I was like, “Next time you’re in Dublin, let’s go to that school, let’s go to that classroom.” He hasn’t been there in 25 years and I knew this would let us stumble on great moments where he gets out of his car and goes, “This is where our first concert was, right up on this little platform.” It was a utility platform at the school. He goes, “We all got up here, and I was over here, and I played for the first time in front of an audience,” then he goes, “And I’ve been on this side (of the stage) ever since.”
CS: What was the deal with that kid that was following Jack around for most of the movie? Was that his son or was that some kid you found? That’s one point where I wasn’t really sure what I was watching, but that’s another example of something that seems like such a Jack White moment.
Guggenheim: Jack White teaching Jack White as a 9-year-old how to play guitar and it’s quintessential Jack White.
CS: While you were interviewing him, did he just say, “Okay, let’s try this?”
Guggenheim: He arrived that day dressed in a bowler hat, red tie and a suit, and he arrived with a 9-year-old dressed exactly the same way, and he opened the door for the 9-year-old and he said, “Davis, I’d like you to meet Jack White.” I said, “Nice to meet you” and then he proceeded to teach him how to play guitar.
CS: The more you talk about it, the more this sounds like a “go with the flow” type thing that whomever you were with, that was part of capturing their personalities and incorporating their ideas into the interviews.
Guggenheim: The thing is that the reason why so many documentaries are bad, I think, is that they’re written ahead of time, so if I’m going to make a documentary about you name it – Green Day. Typical people would go online to Wikipedia and read about Green Day, born here, wrote this song, da da da da, and then you say, “Okay, well I’ll go shoot those things that are there because that’s what I know about,” but then you’re just rehashing the story that’s been said a hundred times before. There’s nothing in it that’s real, there’s nothing in it that’s new. And it’s not their story, it’s just the story that was told by someone that’s been repeated by others. What you really want to do is hear from Green Day, have them tell their stories in a way they would tell it to their friend. I think that’s the approach we took. These guys–Jimmy, Jack and The Edge–are the only ones who really talk in this movie, and they’re there telling us their stories. Wouldn’t that be great? Rather than hearing from some pompous rock historian or some ex-girlfriend about some car wreck story? We hear it from Jimmy Page, telling us his story about what it was like being a 17-year-old kid in London? What it was like being a session player? What was it like joining the Yardbirds?
CS: I thought the stuff with Jimmy talking about his session work was really fascinating because I’m not sure we’ve ever heard so much in-depth revelations about that time in his career. Also when he was playing records for you that inspired him, that was great, too. What kind of crew did you have while you were making this? Just two or three guys?
Guggenheim: At the summit, where they’re all together, we had a crew of about 50 people, and then when we’re in Dublin, a couple of us go and then find some local crew, maybe four or five people total. Very small, very intimate. To get the intimate things… like you’re sitting with The Edge at the kitchen table in the cottage and he’s playing 4-track tapes. If a whole crew is there, it’s really kind of stiff and uncomfortable. If you’re there with one camera, sitting around, you get these great… the trick about documentaries is finding these real moments, those real genuine moments.
CS: What was it like leading up to the actual summit? Was there any sort of tension or trepidation either among you and your crew or any of the three guys about what was going to happen there or was it just that everyone wanted to do it and you’d figure it out as it happened?
Guggenheim: I thought I was really genius when I was like, “Well, I’m not going to tell them anything.” Not going to tell them to play any songs or what to say and they all called and said, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “I’m not going to tell you because I want to know what happens when you get together.” Then they sat down for the first time together, I was like, “Oh, this is going to suck” because the first couple hours it was kind of awkward. It was like, “What strings do you play?” and I was like, “Aw, f*ck! We are f*cked!” And then Edge asked Jimmy a question and instead of answering with words, Jimmy reached behind him and picks up his guitar and plays “Whole Lotta Love.” The crew started to melt, Jimmy and Jack started to melt. It was kind of a throwdown. It was like, “Okay, here’s my stuff, show me yours” and then for the rest of the two days, they couldn’t stop playing music, they couldn’t stop telling stories. Each time they played a song, the next one had to step up.
CS: I’m thinking that Edge and Jack knew Jimmy’s music and probably each other’s stuff, but was Jimmy familiar with U2 and the White Stripes, at least a little bit?
Guggenheim: I think in some cases, they were a complete mystery to one another and in others, they really understood and heard each other. I think Jimmy had seen Jack play in the audience at a White Stripes concert. That’s about all they had seen of each other’s music but they come from different approaches. Punk was so different from… punk was a rejection of these white boy blues bands that Led Zeppelin represented, and Jack is a rejection of the processed music that U2 makes. They’re very different. It was like three gunslingers and this town isn’t big enough for the both of us, except the “both of us” is three.
CS: Presuming you taped the entire two-day summit, how hard was it to find the best moments in order to keep this movie a reasonable length, while also incorporating all the interviews you did? Is there a lot other stuff from that summit we might eventually get to see or needs to be seen?
Guggenheim: The other gems will come out. The film has to play first in theatrical but they’re playing great music, and there’s LOTS of stuff that you’re going to see come out.
CS: I was wondering about that because I assume the movie could have been just the summit, so I thought we might ever seen an entire half hour of them jamming or talking in the future.
Guggenheim: Yeah, people would love that.
CS: Any idea what you’re doing next? I know you’ve been balancing doing docs and dramatic features for the last years. Are you sticking with docs for a little bit longer?
Guggenheim: I just did the pilot for “Melrose Place” that’s coming out in September, and then I’m doing another documentary. This one’s about the public school system in America, a very controversial in-your-face documentary about how many of our schools are failing our families and our children.
CS: That should be interesting. I’m sure a lot of people have felt that for many years but I’m not sure it’s been addressed in a feature film as far as I know.
Guggenheim: That’s why we’ve been trying to do this. Our hearts are in the right place but we keep f*cking up.
CS: I assume that’s going to as much of an about face from this movie as this was from “Inconvenient Truth,” a very different format and trying different things?
Guggenheim: Yeah, I mean there’s some echoes of “An Inconvenient Truth” in the next one but I’m like a genre-hopper. I’ve never done anything like “Melrose Place” or “Deadwood” and I like tackling new roles and subjects.
CS: Do you think you might ever do another movie like this one with three other guitarists? Has that idea been thrown out at all?
Guggenheim: I would do it tomorrow. You could do it with singer/songwriters, you could do it with hip-hop, you could do it with three more electric guitarists. Truthfully, it’s about the lives of these fascinating people and you find three more fascinating people and you have a great movie.
It Might Get Loud opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, August 14.