Star-Studded Documentary "It Might Get Loud" Explores the Magic and Mystery of the Electric Guitar

The Edge sits calmly in an arm chair on a soundstage in Los Angeles as the cameras roll for Davis Guggenheim's documentary It Might Get Loud (Sony). Much of the movie to this point has focused on the build-up to a live-in-person "summit" featuring the U2 guitarist and two other rock-guitar icons of their respective eras, the White Stripes' Jack White and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, but so far Guggenheim hasn't gotten much for his trouble except for the polite, slightly uncomfortable chit-chat of strangers. And then Page, sitting in an arm chair across from the Edge, picks up his guitar and digs into the grinding riff that opens Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," and the Edge stands up, seemingly unconsciously, galvanized, as if Page has just started banging out the national anthem, or maybe the secret sequence of his DNA. The mysterious connection between man, instrument, and the sound they make together manifests itself in that unbidden reaction better than anything else Guggenheim captures in his movie on the subject, and it's no surprise that it comes at the hand of Page, a rock god if there ever was such a thing and the not-so-secret star of the show.

Guggenheim won an Oscar for making global warming—and Al Gore—compelling onscreen in An Inconvenient Truth, and has turned his talents toward another big, potentially unwieldy subject: said mysterious connection, as embodied in the lives and work of the three musicians. The director clearly went to lengths to avoid most of the standard rock-flick tropes—there are no talking heads other than the participants and no prurient Behind the Music rise-and-fall arcs. Instead, for example, Guggenheim films White teaching a black-suited stand-in for his own 9-year-old self how to play guitar. He takes the Edge back to Mount Temple, the Dublin secondary school where U2 formed, and films Page wandering the halls of Headley Grange, the estate where Zeppelin created iconic albums such as Led Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti. While the aforementioned chat session/guitar-pull functions as the movie's organizational/thematic center, it's not hearing the three play U2's "I Will Follow" together that appeals as much as watching the Edge and White teaching the dog-simple riff to a pursed-lipped Page. The men and their stories, as told here, are more compelling than the music.

The mysterious connection remains mysterious, for the most part, but if you're content to simply nerd-out hard over the portraits that emerge from Guggenheim's extraordinary access, then you're in luck. White's 19th-century-undertaker affect and laborious atavism are cut by a ferocious work ethic and undeniable passion. White's intensity is cut, in turn, by the Edge, who comes off as an appealingly humble, dry-witted mensch, never without his trademark skull cap or a wry grin. He lends Loud a lightness that it would otherwise miss.

And then there's Jimmy Page. White and the Edge may be rock stars, but not like Page is. They drive; he is chauffeured. They each have trademark garb; he wears a long black coat and a white shirt with ruffled cuffs like a standard going-down-the-pub ensemble. Silver-haired, trim, and remarkably unlined, he retains an air of hooded inscrutability even when it seems he's sincerely trying to address the movie's open-ended queries about the power of music as delivered by string, wood, and amplification. Then, Guggenheim's cameras catch him in his music room, flipping through old 45s until he finds the one he's looking for: Link Wray's seminal 1958 instrumental "Rumble," the ur-text for all loud, rude guitar. As Wray's riff staggers along, Page's head goes back, he breaks into a Buddha smile, and he plays a little air guitar. It gets to him, too.

When it comes to portraits of artists, their art, and how that connection is made and then made to ripple out and change the world, few films have ever gotten it as right as the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z Boys (Sony), freshly issued on Blu-ray. Talk about showing, not telling: Thanks to the efforts of pioneering photographers Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman, who just happened to train their cameras on some bored SoCal surf punks with nothing to do when the waves were flat, you can literally watch as Tony Alva, Jay Adams, Stacy Peralta, and a handful of others take up the then-passé pastime of skateboarding and turn it into a radical new sport/culture/art that has since put its mark on everything from Madison Avenue to the nearest curb. Peralta directed, and if that leads to perhaps a more forgiving take on the Z Boys' antics, he doesn't stint on middle-finger attitude and energy, from the grungy look and chain-saw editing to the endless series of wicked '70s hard-rock cues that punctuate the action.

The only bummer here is that Dogtown was originally shot in a broadcast-friendly aspect ratio, which no level of Blu-ray richness will expand. But Peralta had a bigger budget and wider screen to work with for 2004's Riding Giants, also just out on Sony Blu-ray. What Dogtown does for skating, Giants does for big-wave surfing, documenting its progression over the last half of the 20th century from the literal beach bums of Oahu's North Shore in the 1950s to sponsored-up-the-wazoo contemporary surf conqueror and general doer-of-the-impossible Laird Hamilton. On Blu-ray or on regular old, readily available DVD, both are dazzling films, even if you rarely make it off the couch.