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Another kind of summit: (l-r) White, Page and Edge in It Might Get Loud.

Power Trio

By John Brodeur

It Might Get Loud

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Two of the most disarming moments in 2009 cinema come courtesy of a silver-haired, 65-year-old guitarist, a man better known for wailing on his six-string with a violin bow than for his emotive abilities. The first comes about halfway through It Might Get Loud, the latest film from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. Jimmy Page, the legendary Led Zeppelin ax-man, sets the needle down on an old 45 of Link Wray’s speaker-cone-shredding classic “Rumble.” The smile on Page’s face at the sound of those first mammoth guitar chords is natural, unrehearsed, and beautiful. As the song progresses, the dude who wrote “Stairway to Heaven” geeks out: He laughs, begins to narrate Wray’s playing on the track, eventually slipping into a bit of air guitar. For a moment the camera is gone; Page becomes a teenager again, alone in his bedroom, understanding the possibilities of rock & roll for the very first time.

The second such moment comes when Page straps on a real guitar and plays the jackhammer riff from “Whole Lotta Love.” This time, the smiles are on the faces of his two audience members: U2 guitarist The Edge, and White Stripes/Raconteurs man Jack White. As Page fingers his way around the 40-year-old song, his peers look on, beaming. Much in the same way Page himself is transformed in that earlier scene, these two superstars are suddenly on the other side of the barrier, staring up adoringly at their guitar idol.

On paper, It Might Get Loud doesn’t make a lot of sense. An Oscar-winning documentary director is going to put three guitarists in a room and have them talk about their craft? Who’s that even going to appeal to, besides other guitarists? Bo-ring.

But Guggenheim finds little bits of magic in this seemingly limited concept. Framed around an arranged meeting of the three guitar greats, he builds a film that is marked by little bits of discovery, both musical and historical. (Surely only White fanatics were aware that he’d once cut a record under the name The Upholsterers.) Scenes from that January 2008 summit are mixed with interview clips and archival footage. There are videos of the skiffle-playing teenage Page (which are freaking adorable); shots of the young U2 playing having a grounding effect when inter-cut with the bloated spectacle of their modern arena concerts. Even the footage of early-decade White Stripes seems quaint—which was kind of their aim at the time.

Each of the three subjects also returns to an important location from their musical past . . . sort of. Page stands in the room where John Bonham played the iconic drum track from “Where the Levee Breaks” at England’s Headley Grange, the house in East Hampshire where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded. The Edge returns to the secondary school in Dublin where U2 formed, pointing out the exact spot where he first spotted drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s advertisement seeking band members. White, on the contrary, jams with a 9-year-old version of “himself” in a dusty Midwestern cabin, in what seems to be an attempt to build mystery around his character, or add color to the picture.

White, indeed, seems the odd man out in this bunch, but it’s his unusual persona that gives the film an edge (heh). Indeed, he turns out to be an excellent raconteur (heh heh), and his approach to the instrument (he plays battered, cheap guitars because he wants a “battle”) contrasts nicely with Page’s studied technique and that of “sonic architect” The Edge.

There are no revelations in It Might Get Loud. It’s an uneven film for sure, with too much concentration on history. Perhaps the summit footage is slighted because these three gentlemen found little in common—their only real moment of collaboration, a closing-credits slog through the Band’s “The Weight” (which they play incorrectly), feels forced upon them. But for fans of the performers and guitar lovers, especially, will find themselves lost in the sound, much like Jimmy Page in that one great scene.

Desperately Seeking Self

Cold Souls

Directed by Sophie Barthes

Sophie Barthes’s debut feature will draw inevitable comparisons to the Charlie Kaufman-penned, Spike Jonze-directed Being John Malkovitch, (and to a lesser extent the Kaufman-helmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The melancholic humor and existential uncertainty of Cold Souls establish a ground familiar to Kaufman fans; and the casting of Paul Giamatti as an actor named Paul Giamatti, of course, brings to mind Malkovitch’s titular role as himself. But for all the superficial similarities, Cold Souls has a tone—and therefore an impact—quite different from the frantically neurotic work of Kaufman.

Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti, a successful New York actor preparing for his performances in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. The emotional theatrical role, however, is taking a heavy toll on him. He feels tortured, burdened, and when his agent jokingly refers to a soul-storage service profiled in a recent New Yorker magazine article, Paul—in a kind of semi-credulous desperation—bites. In consultation with facility’s blithely confident lead doctor (David Strathairn), Paul decides to have his soul extracted and stashed in a Manhattan storage area—he pays extra so as not to have his soul interred in Jersey—just until the run of Vanya is complete.

Complications ensue.

Some of which are quite funny: The scenes of post-soul Paul in rehearsal are hilarious. From earlier rehearsals we know him to be a talented, fully committed actor; in his unburdened state he is an altogether different artist. If you’ve ever wondered how Shatner would do Chekhov, Cold Souls has your answer. It’s a delightfully silly, well played bit.

But, funny as they are for the viewer, the consequences of soulessness for Paul are dire: Obviously his career is at stake. His relationship with his wife (an underused Emily Watson), too, is rattled. Convinced now that he has made a mistake, Paul decides to reverse the procedure. Unfortunately, soul storage is new to the marketplace and, as such, largely unregulated. It turns out that the practice depends greatly on illicit soul trafficking from Russia. Due to less-than-perfect security measures and the desire of a Russian trafficker’s wife for an infusion of American celebrity, Paul’s soul ends up in St. Petersburg. As a temporary measure, he takes on the soul of a Russian playwright (containing more than enough emotion there to complete the play), then heads off to retrieve his own, with the assistance of a “mule,” a woman paid to smuggle souls by carrying them within herself.

It all sounds a bit bonkers, and under another director—Kaufman, say—it likely would have been. But Barthes is remarkably deft and sure. The movie unfolds like a dream, its logic unquestionable as it is unknowable. Barthes wisely avoids the temptation to over explain the science of the process (Strathairn’s character, in fact, ’fesses up that though they can extract and store souls they don’t have any idea what the soul actually is); and she steers clear of overt religious and/or philosophical musings, altogether.

What is left is a subtly funny, quietly sad, highly ambiguous visual poem about the mystery of personal identity.

—John Rodat

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