It Might Get Loud

Andrew Johnston speaks to An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim about his latest documentary featuring the personal stories of three generations of electric guitar virtuosos

In 2006, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim helped generate awareness of global warming with the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. There wasn’t much evidence of a rise in temperatures, however, when Guggenheim visited Dublin to shoot parts of his new movie, the electric guitar-centric It Might Get Loud. ‘It was so cold,’ laughs the 46-year-old Los Angeles native. ‘I couldn’t get warm. I remember being near the Liffey, and thinking, 'This is a different kind of cold!’'

Guggenheim was in the Irish capital to film U2’s the Edge, as the musician revisited key sites from his past – principally the Dublin comprehensive school where U2 formed and where they played their first gig together on a playground ledge. The Edge is one of three guitar greats featured in It Might Get Loud, the others being Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and Jack White from the White Stripes. The trio jam, swap stories and share their passion for the electric guitar.

Guggenheim, an amateur six-stringer (‘I play when no one’s around’) and a major U2 fan since his teens, says he had to struggle to contain his excitement. ‘I was starstruck, and it was a liability,’ he admits. ‘It’s essential to maintain your scepticism and your critical eye, but those things melted away time and time again. It’s amazing when you ask someone a question, and they can answer that question with this beautiful guitar plugged into this extremely loud amp, and played perfectly.’

Between them, the three superstar musicians in It Might Get Loud have sold more than 350 million records and spent 102 years on the road – but it was their humble origins that most intrigued Guggenheim. ‘Even though their stories are so different – they grew up in different generations, with different intentions and different equipment – each of them grew up in extreme isolation,’ he says. ‘You see it with the way the U2 boys felt, growing up in Dublin, and certainly with Jimmy, in the suburbs of London, where no-one even had guitars.’

The lack of exotic distractions in 1960s London, 1970s Dublin and 1980s Detroit (where White grew up in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood) was integral to the single-mindedness that allowed It Might Get Loud’s stars to conquer the rock scene, reckons Guggenheim – and it’s something he fears might be missing today. ‘I see it now here in LA,’ he says. ‘Everyone has an electric guitar, there are guitar teachers and there’s GarageBand on every computer. Everything is available, yet no-one seems to be creating any new music. Maybe one of the key ingredients is to be deprived.’

The decision to make a documentary about the electric guitar came about because Guggenheim was reluctant to make another environmental movie so soon after An Inconvenient Truth. ‘A lot of people wanted me to do, like, An Inconvenient Truth for cancer, or whatever, but I knew that as a storyteller I had to go in another direction,’ he says. ‘It was important not to repeat myself.’

In 2007, Guggenheim got together with producer Thomas Tull ‘to reconceive the way you tell a story about musicians and rock ‘n’ rollers, and to really throw the rulebook out’. The film, rather than go down the same dusty road as documentaries such as the BBC’s The Story of the Guitar, would largely abandon historical contextualising and critical opining. ‘Part of me is frustrated with movies where you get these rock historians telling you how to like someone’s music, and why it’s so important,’ says Guggenheim. ‘Even if it’s a band that you love, they start using words that don’t mean anything to you – maybe words aren’t the best way to describe it.’

The centrepiece of It Might Get Loud, then, is an almighty three-way jam session, sparking to life when Page cranks out the riff from Led Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. ‘You could see him getting a little frustrated after about an hour of them talking,’ smiles Guggenheim. ‘He said, “F**k it,” and picked up his guitar. Jack and Edge leaned in, and transformed into teenage boys. To see two rock gods melt before another rock god was fascinating.’

It Might Get Loud was a hit in the US, where it is tipped to receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Guggenheim is thrilled by the effect the film continues to have on audiences across the world. ‘The most satisfying thing is when people are inspired to go out and be artists themselves. These guys weren’t touched by magic dust; they just worked really hard and found a way to get their voice out. They needed to be artists. If there was no such thing as a guitar it would have been something else. The message is that anyone can do it.’

It Might Get Loud is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, until January 21. For information on times and prices, visit QFT’s website here.

Andrew Johnston