After missing the first DC screening of the White Stripes’ “Under Great White Northern Lights” film last month, I got redemption at the DC Film Fest a week or two ago. During the closing credits, I was hearing a slight twist on the Avett Brothers song… ‘Three letters that became hard to say: O and M and G’ (hum that along to “I and Love and You”). yes, I’m lame…
I watched this Emmett Malloy film rather jaw-dropped and it made me want to throw in the towel The first thing I said to my friend Eugene when it was over was, “I don’t think I want to play music anymore.” Ok I kid and exaggerate.
However, it’s imperative to see this on the big screen. Live footage, especially immaculately and gorgeously shot footage, isn’t done justice unless you’re surrounded by it. The film is grainy and vintage-looking, mostly b/w with brilliant, beautiful swathes of red, which doused the whole thing in mystery, rock&roll and romance.
It never occurred to me that the White Stripes could squeegee tears out of me, on any occasion really, but their rendition of Dolly Parton‘s Jolene was so grossly earnest, it knotted me up inside and slow-burned until I was sick to my stomach. I think it had to do with the fact that Jack was singing from the perspective of a woman, and as the listener comes to that realization, the experience of the song sort of twists itself into something brutal and bizarre … because he’s singing it with such devastating sincerity. I love androgyny and the fact that he doesn’t shy away from the lyrics. Most people would be like, uh no we can’t sing that song, that would just be weird. But I guess the White Stripes’ irreverence is no surprise.
Actually that’s what this film seemed to be about. Or maybe it was about reverence… of the quirky, of local, of small towns, enigma, culture and traditions, word of mouth. It was a documentary of the band’s 2007 tour of Canada, on which they played every province and all kinds of shows – big and small, one-person audience shows, bowling alleys, taverns, and random outdoor gigs where they were chauffeured by black hearse (and the most dapper roadies I’ve ever seen!) right up to the stage.
They even played a school bus, cooped up with a bunch of wild-eyed fans, and then a small boat, which almost made me laugh because they were the only ones bobbing on the boat, and the audience was on land. Eventually they just floated away. Some of these shows were revealed on short notice and relied on word of mouth. But by far the most charming and awkward scene was where Jack and Meg actually sat down to meet with Inuit elders of First Nations. Interesting choice of a tour stop? But it all made sense – Jack played them some Blind Willie McTell, and the heavy, heavy blues were not lost on the elders whose people spent the last centuries witnessing the erosion of their way of life.
As far as rock documentaries go, this was captivating and intense. But the more interesting thing to me was that, by 2007 the White Stripes were well established in the annals of rock history – there was no need to play anything other than huge shows. It’s possible I have a low bar for this kind of thing, but I think it was gutsy to deliberately invite this degree of uncertainty into your tour about the kinds of shows you play, the venue, the turnout, the reception from the audience. They could have just planned a waterproof tour surrounded by adoring fans who were guaranteed to provide adulation. If it were me, I would have an ulcer by the end of the tour just from worrying what to expect at the next show, etc.
But they rolled with it. Imagine that. How rock’n’roll.
On a final note, this film was an intriguing look at Jack and Meg’s relationship – Jack, always the enigma, the misunderstood Detroit native and former upholsterer. He’s an animal onstage. There is a youthfulness about him in this footage that you don’t see in more recent films, like “It Might Get Loud,” but it is refreshing and honest. I also came away with a newfound appreciation of the demure and equally mysterious Meg. She holds it down while Jack is out there ripping hellish, soulful chords out of his red and white guitar. It’s a quaint and idyllic relationship – one partner is the anchor, the rooted one who holds it down, keeps the beat, steady as she goes (heehoo) and unwavering. And the other’s a bit more adventurous, the spellbinder, the entertainer, who ventures out a bit, but in his undying loyalty to the little drummer whose beat he marches to, he is inevitably reeled back in to the center. They are each others’ ball & chain.
There’s something fundamental about this partnership that transcends just an awesome 2-person rock band. Maybe it’s also about our relationship to what is real in our lives – the things that remain steadfast with us after every trial, and that have always and will always be there when the dust clears. Such … is Meg. Because without a beat, Jack couldn’t ever have taken his first step. Meg gets flak for her minimalist style, but I can hear her bellow to Jack in her loudest whisper, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (All her lines in the film are subtitled bc you can’t hear anything she says!). In the end, I think we’re all part Jack, part Meg … The Jack Whites of the world know inside what they can truly hold on to, and yet they wander away in search of the bright lights and thrills. But inevitably they grow tired and it’s time for them to come home, and when they do, home is right where it’s always been – Meg is what they were searching for all their livelong days. And you thank her for … well, for not missing a single beat while you learned it all the hard way : )
Having said all this, I would wager that Jack has the fiercest and most profound appreciation for Meg of all of us. This is him defending her against naysayers in a Pitchfork article:
“Her femininity and extreme minimalism are too much to take for some metal heads and reverse-contrarian hipsters. She can do what those with ‘technical prowess’ can’t. She inspires people to bash on pots and pans. For that, they repay her with gossip and judgment. In the end she’s laughing all the way to the Prada handbag store. She wins every time.”
Below is a screenshot of the final scene, which I can’t even begin to describe. I’ll let it speak for itself when you watch it.