Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden now suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.

 

Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.

The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and more involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your bandmates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboraion with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.

 

Just another ordinary rock music documentary in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)” (2011)

To mark the 40th anniversary of a beloved British rock music institution, the BBC made this 2-part series featuring apparently rare interviews and until now unseen archival film material. Part 1 covers the band’s early history from its formation up to the early 1980s and includes the first seven albums. The episode revolves around two of the remaining band members, lead guitarist Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, speaking to an unseen interviewer and reminiscing about significant periods in the band’s career; other people associated with the band, like John Reid who managed Queen for a brief time in the late 1970s and producer Roy Thomas Baker are also interviewed. Band recordings relevant to the passages that proceed chronologically enliven what is a basically straightforward retelling of Queen’s 1970s history which is further spiced with music video clips and a bit of old late 1970s social background context when punk and new wave erupted in the UK and for a while made Queen look dangerously antiquated.

In its first half-hour the film whooshes through the band’s timeline with an emphasis on how particular songs were put together and recorded in the studio. The second half-hour relaxes into an amble through a number of issues that affected Queen’s career throughout the decade such as the tension between preserving musical integrity and the drive for commercial success, creativity under pressure and production expenses, the hostility of the music press, the ownership of songs and the naivety of American audiences confronted by the band’s deliberate artifice and camp image. Parts of this section aren’t always interesting and feature trivia that don’t add much to viewers’ understanding of why the band formed, why the members were so hungry for success and recognition and the song-writing and recording process. Not much really has to be done by the film crew save for ensuring that the images have a structure most viewers can follow: to some extent the music itself reflects and suggests progress and change, and the band’s upward career trajectory in the 1970s and early 1980s conveniently fills out part of the episode in an entertaining way.

Ultimately the episode isn’t very in-depth and merely falls into the kind of conventional rock music documentary territory that dutifully recounts the peaks and troughs of the band’s career. I for one would really like to know what drove singer Freddie Mercury into wanting to be not just another rock or pop singer but a legend, how he developed his singing style and stage act, and what people or styles of music influenced him when he was young. The fact that Mercury was of Parsi Indian ancestry and grew up in an environment heavily influenced by British colonial culture, Zoroastrian culture and others against a multicultural background in India and the-then Tanganyika and Zanzibar territories must have had considerable effect on his vocal style, visual presentation and song-writing approach but the film says nothing about this. The film omits interviews with significant people in Mercury’s life including his girlfriend Mary Austin and family members who might have shed some interesting or revealing light on his motivations and character. Also early music influences on the band overall – influences that would have included 1960s psychedelic rock, early 1970s progressive rock and early heavy metal among others- aren’t covered much.

Shame that an opportunity to look at Queen’s career in a way different from how most rock music documentaries are done was wasted. This particular number will soon join the ranks of other ho-hum TV biographies and be forgotten by most people apart from Queen fans.

Black Metal Satanica: not very Satanic and not very informative

Mats Lundberg, “Black Metal Satanica” (2008)

This documentary promised initially to be a fairly in-depth investigation of the Scandinavian black metal music scene and its agenda and for the first half hour “Black Metal Satanica” did entertain with a pleasing mix of band interviews, music and historical archive material. Over the rest of its 80-minute course though the film deteriorated into an unfocussed parade of interviews which suggests director Lundberg lost control of the project and let the musicians he interviewed take over. I was quite disappointed at how the film turned out as the mostly Swedish interviewees were well-spoken, polite and thoughtful, and offered interesting insights into the general tenor of the scene and their own motivations for joining it; they gave the impression of being able to answer almost any challenging and provocative questions Lundberg could have put to them. The film also offers snapshots of very interesting and often expressionistic black metal film clips and energetic concert footage. The mostly black metal music soundtrack which also features a little ambient music and even some Christian church choral music in parts runs throughout the film and gives it an energetic and aggressive ambience though it is never intrusive.

The most interesting section of the film is its examination of black metal’s opposition to Christianity and how this derives from the history of Christian proselytisation in Scandinavia at the tail-end of the Viking period: in many parts of Norway and Sweden, communities were forced to accept Christianity and baptism under threat of invasion. The film omits to add that temples dedicated to Odin worship were razed and churches built in their stead which would have explained the church burnings that mentioned later on. A link is made between Scandinavia’s Viking history and culture on the one hand and black metal on the other in a superficial way: the interviewees talk about self-respect and resisting the Christian influence on current society but there is little about the appeal of Viking values such as individualism, curiosity, an adventurous spirit which drove the Vikings to explore and colonise Iceland, Greenland and parts of North America, self-reliance and a desire to beat the elements, transcend death and be remembered for heroic exploits.

After this stirring episode, the film investigates early inspirations like the northern European physical environment and climate, and bands like Bathory, Mayhem and Burzum on black metal generally (no mention of Darkthrone and Emperor?) and delves into various black metal recreations such as grave desecrations, murdering homosexual men, church burnings, studying Anton Szandor LaVey’s Satanic Bible, self-mutilation and apocalyptic fantasies. Distinguishing between Norwegian and Swedish BM is non-existent; the credits that introduce each interviewee/s at least could have indicated which country they were from and Lundberg could have asked some Swedish subjects about when and how BM became popular in Sweden. I begin to wonder whether Lundberg is becoming enthralled or overwhelmed by the style of BM rather than its substance. There is plenty substantial that is suggested by the interviewees and the activities covered here which is not covered in much depth: black metal’s emphasis on pseudo-Nietzschean elitism, freedom of expression and individuality, and closeness to and concern for nature which lead to a love of land, nationalism and Romanticism (and National Socialist beliefs) which in their turn feed a hatred of humanity, pessimism about the future of the planet and ultimately a desire for an apocalypse or a series of disaster events that will sweep humans away into the dustbin of history and cleanse the Earth.

(I always smile wryly whenever I hear or see people say that a concern for the environment indicates a left-wing / socialist point of view with a concern for social justice: I only have to think of what I learned at high school and read in books and on the Internet since to remember that the one time when a bunch of nature-worshippers and environmentalists plus others among them took over an entire government by themselves was in Germany from 1933 to mid-1945. Even today, First World environmentalists frequently advocate one position or policy after another in various Third World countries without considering the impact their ideas might have on the people who would have to live with the fallout as well as the intended results: not a good look, I’m afraid.)

Past the halfway point, the narrator with the irritating American accent drops out and the film becomes a series of the same talking heads covering familiar ground. At one point the topic of Christian black metal (a mostly American sub-genre phenomenon in which BM elements are in the employ of a robust take-no-prisoners Christianity that shoots first before proffering the other cheek) is broached to the interviewees who express surprise and disbelief and for a brief moment the film shows some sparkle. When the closing credits arrive, I realise I didn’t learn much from “Black Metal Satanica” that I wasn’t already aware of and that there is plenty more Lundberg and his guests could have spoken about. Why does black metal have an elitist point of view rather than an inclusive democratic one? How much influence does Nietzschean philosophy have on the music and the sub-culture that surrounds it? Is that influence a superficial one or are black metal followers aware that to be an Übermensch, one must not only continually test oneself against insuperable odds but welcome such tests joyfully?

Black Metal Satanica? – not very much so as it turns out: the film serves best as an introduction for viewers not familiar with BM who moreover will have to do some extra homework on the BM agenda if they want to understand it fully.

Once upon a time in Norway: film misses a lesson about social conformism

Pål Aasdal, Martin Ledang “Once upon a time in Norway” (2007)

This one-hour film is a straightforward blow-by-blow chronological account of the early career of Mayhem, one of the pioneer bands of Norwegian black metal which since the late 1980s has exploded across the world and become Norway’s most significant cultural export and contribution to international youth music and culture. Mayhem itself continues on an on/off basis with bassist Necrobutcher and drummer Hellhammer at the helm since 1995. The documentary concentrates on the band’s history from its 1984 founding by guitarist Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous and Necrobutcher through its revolving-door personnel up to and just a little beyond Euronymous’s murder by Varg Vikernes in 1993. The film is good and very informative but I feel it could have lightened up on the information and gone for a more general overview of Mayhem’s history and the birth of black metal.

The film’s structure is dominated by interviews with various members and ex-members of Mayhem including Necrobutcher himself, Kjetil Manheim and Billy Nordheim, and various friends and associates including Darkthrone guitarist Nocturno Culto, musician Anders Odden and ex-Emperor man Tchort. Almost immediately the major focus of the interviews is Euronymous, in particular his attempt to dominate and control the music’s development and direction, and his eccentric character and bizarre sense of humour: these factors led directly or indirectly to his death. There is some discussion of Mayhem’s musical and philosophical inspirations and of the band members’ desire to create fast, aggressive and extreme music with the intent to shock. The musicians admit to flirting with Satanic beliefs, Nietzschean philosophy in a rather superficial way, nihilism and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy: anything that legitimised and support their desire to shock and rebel against perceived traditional authorities in Norwegian society. There is little investigation in the film of the philosophical underpinnings of black metal apart from the musicians’ own observations otherwise.

As the film progresses, slowly but surely – there is a lot of talk and the detail about what Euronymous got up to, his political beliefs and his attempt to run a record shop and label is immense – viewers get an inexorable sense of progress towards the moment when Euronymous is killed so when the murder does happen, it comes as an emotionless, matter-of-fact anti-climax. Perhaps the film-makers’ approach to making the documentary is just too calm and measured for the subject matter. Even the discussion of various church burnings that took place around Norway, including the destruction of the historic Fantoft stave church (it was rebuilt by 1997), in the early 1990s by fanatical black metal fans and hangers-on appears relatively unemotional, at least to my Australian senses. Norwegians are such cool, calm and collected characters!

As would be expected, excerpts of early Mayhem songs are played here and there though in my opinion there is just not enough music to carry the film. The overall tone can be very dry, even intellectual. The passage dealing with Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, his psychological problems (he was possibly borderline schizophrenic), a near-death experience as a child and his gunshot suicide comes across as very clinical. With a film like this, there needs to be a fair amount of music throughout the proceedings to convey a sense of urgency and passion; to help viewers understand the power of black metal and how it inspired a small group of socially alienated individuals; and ultimately to inspire viewers themselves to find out more about the early Norwegian black metal scene and check out classic works like Mayhem’s first album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” and Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”.

Maybe the documentary could have concentrated less on the details of Mayhem’s history and a little more on issues such as the cultural policing of the extent and boundaries of black metal vis-a-vis death metal and other forms of heavy metal, an obsession beloved of heavy metal magazines and websites; the rivalry between Norwegian black metal bands and Swedish death metal bands which reflects past historical resentments; when talking about doing something itself becomes dangerous if it inspires others to carry out the act spoken of; and burning churches as a way of gaining acceptance into a social network and later gaining power over it.  There’s an interesting diversion when interviewees talk about why Euronymous took photographs of Dead’s death scene: was Euronymous really that twisted or did he take the photos as a way of “proving” to himself and to others that Dead really was dead? Many people find accepting a piece of news difficult until they have seen it for themselves on the TV news or in the newspapers.

The narrow focus of the documentary also means an elephant in the room is completely missed: just what social conditions prevailed in Norway in the 1980s that a group of young men, well brought up, highly intelligent and very likeable, should feel alienated from society enough that they find relief in playing extreme music and through that end up involved in extreme behaviours such as beating up homosexuals and elderly people, burning churches and killing people? People outside Scandinavia imagine the region as a social democratic welfare-state utopia where everyone is equal and laws provide for equal and easy access to necessary resources. Crime rates are low and social problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently by government agencies. At the same time the egalitarian values of Scandinavian societies, laudable though they are, may mask a suffocating, mean-spirited conformism known as the Jante Law in Scandinavia and the Tall Poppy syndrome in Anglophone countries. This is an unwritten set of conventions which restrict, criticise or even punish individual achievement and elevate the collective above the individual. Could it be then that the Jante Law restricted young people then and restricts young people now from finding their place in Norwegian society as is? Does Norwegian society (or any other advanced Western society for that matter) provide adequate creative outlets for youth so that when they do things that threaten to get out of control, there is an agency or a code of etiquette or conventions that can provide them with advice and guidance so they can rein in their impulses themselves? A lesson that could be learned from this documentary is missed.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: It might get loud

it-might-get-loud-poster
Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.

As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.

Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.

As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.

Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!