With an Oscar on the mantel for producing and directing An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim decided to take a break from politics. In addition to befriending Al Gore for that 2006 eco-doc, he contributed to last year’s half-hour Obama campaign info-mercial and directed the Democratic National Convention film A Mother’s Promise, which profiled our president. Mission accomplished. So why not sit back, relax, and turn the stereo up to 11?
The result is It Might Get Loud, an enjoyable three-way sit-down among guitar heroes Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge. (See Robert Wilonsky’s review.) During a recent visit to Seattle to discuss the film, the tousle-haired, bespectacled Guggenheim looks more like an absent-minded professor than a would-be axe master. (He’s also a middle-aged dude with two kids from his marriage to Oscar-nominated actress Elisabeth Shue.) So, I ask, does he harbor a secret past in a high-school or college rock band? Did he wear spandex and big hair during the ’80s?
Guggenheim chuckles at the suggestion. “There was the moment when someone asked me to be the lead singer in a band, but the band never happened. I never had the chance. I danced around many nights in my underwear air-guitaring to everybody. In the pathetic days of Billy Joel.” Worse, he sang in a college a cappella group called—get ready for it—the Brown Derbies. After that, Guggenheim insists, “I got cooler,” but never with a guitar in his hands.
Born toward the tail end of the baby boom (1963), the director recalls being caught between musical eras; he was late in declaring allegiance to one brand of music or another.
“We used to play [the Who’s] Quadrophenia during our hangover Sunday mornings at Brown,” says Guggenheim. “Whoever woke up first would play it. Four sides of vinyl. U2 came to Brown when I was there. They were just touring Irish kids—17 or 18 years old. My brother brought home [U2’s] Boy, and when my parents left the house, he blasted out Boy. And I was like, ‘OK, this is my music.'”
Prior to that, he remembers, “I wasn’t old enough to experience the discovery of Led Zeppelin. I was on the wrong side of it. It had been played on the radio endlessly. It was someone else’s music, not mine. Camaro rock. Only later could I get to appreciate Led Zeppelin.”
Ironically, he thinks his own kids, tweeners of the mp3 era, helped turn him onto the retro, Marshall-stack sound of Zep and the White Stripes.
Says Guggenheim, “My kids could care less about the Stones; they love Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin is so raw, it has to be listened to on its own terms. The immediacy, and I think kids get it. Something real. My kids love the White Stripes, too, because it doesn’t feel polished or plastic.”
Guggenheim’s recent education in the blues, he adds, has come entirely in the iPod era—first watching the Martin Scorsese documentary series on PBS, then at the feet of White and Page. “Jack White is into Son House; I didn’t know Son House. Jimmy introduced me to Elmore James. I definitely got into the blues—Robert Johnson, etc.”
Another newfangled gizmo being brought to the old blues crossroads, Guggenheim notes with ambivalence, is the game Guitar Hero: “They both, Jimmy and Jack, talk about Guitar Hero. Because you have a new generation of people who are ersatz rock ‘n’ roll. Weirdly, they’re connecting to this music, by pushing yellow and red and green buttons.”
But that’s the strange thing about music and technology, as Guggenheim readily admits. On one hand, guitar rock and guitar heroics seem incredibly fossilized notions in our current download era. But this was true even in the ’80s, when Led Zeppelin faded away and U2 began its rise. And for a kid like Jack White, growing up in that decade (as White recalls in the film), “I never wanted to play guitar. Everyone plays guitar. What’s the point?”
In the documentary, White illustrates his point—that music should retain its analog, Mississippi Delta roots—by building a serviceable one-string guitar out of a two-by-four, baling wire, and a guitar pickup. This reflects Guggenheim’s own interest in the social conditions and “deprivation” behind each of the three musicians featured in It Might Get Loud.
He elaborates: “Each of them in different times, different cities, different parts of the world, each of them had a scarcity. In the English suburbs [where Page grew up], they didn’t have records. You’d have to travel across town to buy a blues album from the one guy that sold it. In Dublin [where The Edge grew up], there’s scarcity in terms of access to music that spoke to them. And Jack, he’s in Detroit, where people were into rap music or Mexican music, and no one played an instrument.
“It makes me think about my own kids, where there isn’t a scarcity. You want a song…all you need is to be able to spell it—and maybe not even that—and you got it on iTunes. And I wonder what that’s doing to music. Maybe kids will start buying vinyl again. I do believe in cycles. Just when you think the country’s going to go one way, it goes back the other way. I think that’s true with history and probably true of art.”
The next cycle for Guggenheim is a very different project, one that will have him returning to Seattle to interview Bill Gates at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The next film I’m making is about public education,” says Guggenheim. “And it’s much more aggressive. It’s gonna call things as they are. I’m a union guy, but the unions are a big problem. And no one wants to talk about it. And I’m a Democrat, but the [teachers’] unions give Democrats a buttload of money. It’s fucked up.”
In Seattle or Santa Monica (where Guggenheim lives), “Liberal friends of mine talk a good game. But when it comes to the choice of sending your kids to school, you will become greedy. Between the choice of a tough public school that’s got some issues and paying $23,000 for a private school that’s pretty great—that’s what you do, if you can do it [financially]. And yet that selfish choice is one of the factors that’s fucking up our public schools.”
Look for that yet-untitled doc to debut at Sundance next year, with no earplugs or amplifiers required.