It's hard to go completely wrong with something that involves Jimmy Page. That the rock documentary “It Might Get Loud” also includes U2's guitarist the Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes almost guarantees some good times, which are had. But there's more to rocking out than good times, including a sense of insurgency or at least spontaneity, in short a sense of rock 'n' roll.
In that respect filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) appears to have conspired against himself in trying to manufacture something memorable: getting three very different guitar heroes together to talk about their attraction to the instrument.
For a movie that's supposed to be a deep conversation about the electric guitar, “Loud” ends up shallow both in conversation and guitar rocking, padded with biographical material and other trips down memory lane while struggling to wring something meaningful out of it. That doesn't make it all bad. Actually, many of the movie's frequent asides are enjoyable. But when it comes to the actual amount of time the three rock icons spend together, it's a valid question whether it was worth the trouble getting them in the same location.
The implied reason for choosing these particular three is the complement and contrast of their styles and approaches. All three formed famous groups that played music rooted in rock and the blues, but all three helped their bands take that primal sound in very different directions.
Page helped create a heavy, distorted blues rock imbued with spiritual overtones that would influence just about every hard-rock group that followed. The movie at one point travels with him back to a mossy old manor house where the group, notably with infamous drummer John Bonham, recorded some of its most memorable songs. Bands didn't do that kind of thing back then, Page tells us, but it was all the rage after Zep did.
U2 is next chronologically, after new wave tried to do away with guitars in favor of keyboards and creating a new sound became a lot more difficult than simply finding more obscure blues cuts to cover. The Edge, notably, is a devotee of processing effects. U2's sound owes as much to delay as it does Bono's voice.
Young upstart White comes across aesthetically more like the old man of the group, politely listening to Page and the Edge as they show off their elaborate rigs and rare, expensive instruments before admitting that his favorite guitar came from Kmart and is mostly made out of cheap plastic. And he likes to give it a good stomp or two once in a while to keep it in line.
While these are interesting tidbits about the musicians and their influences, they seem more like stalling or filler, nor do they completely assuage the awkwardness that ensues when Page, White and Edge pull up chairs to one another in a converted warehouse. They eye each other curiously but try to be good sports about it, talking about their favorite blues recordings and the like.
The movie's looser moments only tangentially involve guitars: A really early live rendition by Led Zeppelin of “How Many More Times”; U2 on the British television program “Top of the Pops,” when it was an embarrassingly derivative New Wave band; Jack White making an electric guitar out of an old two-by-four and a Coke bottle; the Edge doing yoga with his BlackBerry.
OK, that last one doesn't involve a guitar at all and wasn't as much good as just, “Wow,” but documentaries need those, too.
Interesting as they might be, anecdotes of this type are also rather innocuous, bland even, unless Guggenheim were attempting to expose the complacency in modern rock, which he clearly is not. Quite the opposite, “It Might Get Loud” appears to stack the deck. These are successful dudes who endorse products and breeze around in expensive automobiles — though Page mostly gets a pass on the former — and are guaranteed to appeal to different age and demographic groups.
Perhaps the Who's Pete Townsend said it best when he suggested that the key to creating a great rock sound was simple serendipity: Just keep plugging different guitars into different amps until something amazing emerges. Something similar has to be at play with any good documentary, which should be open to the unexpected more than trying to force something predetermined. (PG) 97 min. HHIII