- The Washington Times - Friday, September 4, 2009

When he set out to make a documentary about global warming starring Al Gore, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim says, he was greeted with skeptical, even dismissive, reactions from colleagues.

Boiled down: “You can’t make a movie about a politician and a slide show. No one will pay money to see this,” he recalls.

“An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) went on to gross approximately $50 million worldwide and won the Academy Award for best documentary.

On its face, Mr. Guggenheim’s latest venture, “It Might Get Loud,” opening in select area theaters today, seems like a far more auspicious proposition. In place of a notoriously stodgy ex-pol, this one boasts three rock stars: British guitar god Jimmy Page, U2’s the Edge and Jack White of the White Stripes and Raconteurs.

If their ability to sell records and concert tickets translates at all into box-office returns, “It Might Get Loud” is a sure bet, right?

Mr. Guggenheim is far from certain.

“Will it have a theatrical run?” he asks, in a tone that emphasizes the openness of the question.

After premiering last month in little more than a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles, “It Might Get Loud” has seen healthy per-screen averages, but its gross at press time had scarcely exceeded $200,000, according to the Web site BoxOfficeMojo.com.

One reason Mr. Guggenheim is wringing his hands is because of what the film is not: sensationalistic. There’s no talk of drugs, groupies, booze or black magic. There’s no contextual or expositional commentary by rock historians, either. Nor are there supplementary interviews with band mates or ex-wives.

In its refusal to make broad cultural claims or air dirty laundry, the movie departs from both the PBS and “Behind the Music” models of storytelling.

“I wanted to make a different kind of rock ‘n’ roll documentary,” Mr. Guggenheim says. “Too many are about excess, car crashes and overdoses. I wanted to do one that was about the music.”

The movie traces the musical evolution of each artist through intimate personal interviews and guitar-playing demos, intercut with footage of the trio playing guitars and talking shop on a Los Angeles soundstage.

“This movie could easily be about actors or directors or novelists; what it’s really about is becoming an artist, not being an artist,” explains Mr. Guggenheim, a District native whose father, the late Charles Guggenheim, was also an Academy Award-winning documentarian. “What is the creative process? What is the path of a young teenager who’s trying to say something? Even if you’ve never picked up a guitar, youre inspired by how they struggle to find their voice — how they went from being completely isolated to being engaged with the world.”

But why these three guitarists? “I haven’t figured out how to answer that,” Mr. Guggenheim concedes.

Mr. Page was the first to hear the pitch. After what Mr. Guggenheim calls a “slow seduction,” Mr. Page came aboard. With the Led Zeppelin legend attached, the Edge and Mr. White agreed in turn to participate.

“We got the first three we asked for,” Mr. Guggenheim says.

His goal was to assemble a group that had chemistry — not necessarily in the harmonious sense. “Sometimes one of the worst things is a leading man and lady who love each other already. What you want is tension — get into a fight or jump into bed,” says the 46-year-old former television producer-director, who helmed the pilot episode of the prime-time ‘90s soap opera “Melrose Place.”

Shaped in part in reaction to their musical predecessors — much like jazz musicians — the subjects of “It Might Get Loud” represent three distinct adaptations of the rock-guitar animal. Led Zeppelin, though contemporaneously loathed by many rock critics, was the most successful act of the 1970s.

The young U2 quartet initially took its cues from the punk rockers who railed at the ‘70s rock establishment.

By the early 1990s, of course, U2 had itself become the rock establishment — the very kind of globe-trotting behemoth in opposition to which the young Jack White would define himself.

In the back of his mind, at least, Mr. Guggenheim harbored the suspicion that “these were three people who might not get along.” Indeed, for the first two hours of filming on the aforementioned L.A. soundstage, it appeared as though “It Might Get Loud” was going to end prematurely with a quiet whimper.

“Maybe this isn’t going to work,” Mr. Guggenheim remembers worrying as his principals aimlessly chatted away.

But then: “Out of nowhere, Jimmy reaches behind his chair and finds his Les Paul [guitar].” He played for his interlocutors the famous riff of the Zeppelin classic “Whole Lotta Love.”

“Everything changed.”

If “It Might Get Loud,” with its implied themes of artistic singularity and the often lonely struggles of creative expression, fails to find a general audience, Mr. Guggenheim thinks he can at least count on some sizable number of niche moviegoers to devour the film.

“Guitar fans,” he reports, “just go nuts.”

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