Saturday, March 13, 2010

WHITE STRIPES: Under the Great White Northern Lights debuts at SXSW & simultaneously On-Demand

Going into the film at hand, TrustMovies knew nothing about the Detroit-based man/woman musical twosome, The Whites Stripes, who alternately make an incredible amount of noise and then slip into more quiet, you-can-actually-understand-the-lyrics vein. So he simply placed the DVD screener into the machine and hit "play." This lack of knowledge will undoubtedly not be the case for most viewers of the new documentary, The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights, who will most likely already be big fans of this interesting and unusual duo.

I can’t begin to critique the music, as I’m no connoisseur of occasionally ear-splitting, hard-to-decipher songs. But I did enjoy the team in quieter mode. Film-wise, the doc alternates between black & white and color, between performance and interview, and between limos and airplanes as the duo goes to and from gigs – which are often in very odd locations.

The male counterpart, Jack White (above), tells us that Spin magazine once said that “Everything about the White Stripes is a lie.” Someone else, he recalls, wrote that it “is simultaneously the most fake and the most real band in the world.”  So much for critiquing. Yet White seems pleasantly nonplussed about it all; not only does he not know what to make of this, he doesn’t seem to care much. Good for him. He and his (according to the IMDB) ex-wife Meg (below) simply make music, tour major cities and the boonies (this film covers their Canadian gigs) and try – good for them – to hit the venues that don’t get that many concerts: small spots with appreciative audiences who come for the music. Some-
times they appear in big cities at odd places: a Toronto day camp, a  rec center, a bowling alley. One scene shows them on a small boat, serenading an audience sitting on the rocks by the shore.

The White Stripes appear to care about “the thing itself,” a quality much appreciated by TrustMovies because it gives one an honest starting point, from which everything else can grow. Which, as it turns out, is pretty much what the the movie itself does -- directed in wonderfully appropriate fashion by Emmett Malloy (shown with an impish smile, below).  Malloy flips around like crazy, giving us lots of music and fun, along with good information about this duo, showing us snippets from songs, concerts and appearances in all those odd places. In one scene, Meg rides with a what looks like late-middle-age driver who explains that he doesn’t have time to follow music and so asks about her band (exactly as I might do in the same situation). She gives him a quick, ego-free rundown.

In another scene, Jack explains how the internet has changed things regarding the duo's surprise appearances. Now it can announce an odd venue at the last minute and -- zoom -- off the news goes over the web, and an audience always turn up. Ten years ago, Jack notes, you couldn’t have managed this. We occasionally see them laying around, relaxing (Meg smokes: too bad). Their performance dress (a kilt in one scene) is odd but fun, as is their restricted use of only red, white and black in their graphics and costumes (Jack says this was determined a decade ago and hasn’t changed since). In what looks like an Inuit old-folks home, Jack asks questions about Inuit symbols such as the crow (or maybe raven), and he get a fine explanation from one woman in the group. The fellow seems to be able to relax happily with all kinds of people (except perhaps music critics); he can launch easily into a song just sitting on a couch with the Inuits.

One of the more interesting parts of the movie is Jack’s rendition of Jolene (also one of the few songs we seem to hear in its entirety), in which he becomes the female narrator or perhaps a gay man, begging Jolene not to take his man away. Here he uses his reedy/gravelly voice to maximum effect. Meg, much more retiring, is the quieter presence, often barely seeming to be there (except when she's plying her music). In one scene Jack tells her to speak up, SPEAK UP! (Later he makes her go on record that he is not the one stopping her from being heard.  She agrees.)

The movie is shot (by Giles Dunning) with on-the-fly beauty and edited (by Tim Wheeler, who also co-produced) terrifically well: speedily when necessary, but allowing the proper time for a smart, lengthy explanation, such as Jack’s telling us the difference between being inspired early in his career and now -- and how, sometimes, you just have to work at it, even if you don’t feel like it, and maybe, if you’re lucky something good will come out of your time. This, I suspect, is how it is for most artists of any kind.

All in all, this is probably my favorite music doc since Anvil and its unusual duo. From knowing nothing about these kids (kids is a relative term, I realize), by the conclusion, I felt I knew them to a surprising extent. Next time I hear of The White Stripes, this film -- and Jack and Meg -- will probably come rushing back into my head with pleasure and a smile. The last number in the documentary, by the way, is a quiet stunner that provides a lovely, moving finale to all we’ve seen.

The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights made its On-Demand debut yesterday, via IFC Films, simultaneously with its debut at the SXSW festival.

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