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Sundance: Jack White and the Doors rock their docs

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JackWhite_l

JackWhite_l

Rock documentaries sometimes seem trapped in a pattern, designed to exalt the glories of days gone by: Show ancient concert footage under interviews with famous people talking about the significance of said ancient concert footage, lather, rinse, repeat. This year’s Sundance promises to break the mold plenty, with two films designed to celebrate music as it was designed to be heard– in the here and now.

Take Living in Oblivion director Tom DiCillo’s Doors pic, When You’re Strange (you can read Owen Gleiberman’s impression of the film here). Using almost-forgotten footage shot between 1966 and 1971 by a UCLA film school buddy of Jim Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, DiCillo wanted to bring the band’s mystique to life without ever embalming it, a goal rooted in the excitement of being a true fan. “I first heard ‘Light My Fire’ when I was 14 years old,” he says. “I was on my way to a high school dance. I had just emptied a shampoo bottle of shampoo, and filled it with my father’s Scotch, and so every time I took a sip of this Scotch, it tasted like shampoo. And this is when I heard, for the first time, the instrumental version of ‘Light My Fire.’ And I couldn’t believe it. This song just went on and on, and developed, and changed. That was my introduction.”

That youthful amazement helped him shape the film — watching nine hours of footage a day for three weeks — and endeared him to Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger, both of whom accompanied the director to Sundance to help promote the film. “The challenge was trying to come up with a concept that would unify all the material,” says Manzarek. “It was really incredible stuff, but it didn’t give you a story.” So DiCillo came up with what Manzarek calls “a psychic time warp” to propel the story. “When people call this a documentary, part of me sort of bristles,” says DiCillo. “It’s a narrative film,” agrees Manzarek. “There’s a certain twist to it. It becomes a very dramatic film.” Two other big changes for a generation raised on VH1: First, as Manzarek puts it, there are no talking heads, “nobody saying, ‘Well, I remember when I first took acid.'” Secondly, and perhaps most importantly: “You’re gonna see Jim Morrison,” says Manzarek with a smile. “Not Val Kilmer.”

Over at the Park City Library, another new doc was playing: It Might Get Loud, from Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. This one’s not a tough sell — how about getting Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge together to talk about the glories of the electric guitar? Is that something you might be interested in? Yeah. You are. It takes but the opening chords from Page to get the blood rushing, and the audience at the Saturday afternoon screening whooped and hollered as each icon appeared for the first time, thrilled at the chance to watch the famous fingers fly.

The film is set up to let the legacies of the three men swirl together, interspersed with a two-day jam session on a soundstage and educational field trips. See Page play mandolin on the lawn of the mansion where they recorded Led Zeppelin IV! Learn how the Edge uses technology to turn a simple two-note strum into the pulsating riff of “Elevation”! Hear the original guitar demo for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and half the contents of Page’s record collection! And though Jack White’s largely manufactured backstory makes it hard to explore, the look on his face as he sits two feet away from Page and drinks in the elder statesman’s performance of “Whole Lotta Love” says it all.

White attended the Saturday afternoon screening, but participated in the post-movie Q&A in typically enigmatic style — for all his fame, the guy is still more comfortable speaking through his six-string. When asked what he’s working on, he hinted at a “new band” as well as a new album, but would expand on neither. Those are tantalizing nuggets for White Stripes/Raconteurs fans, as well as anyone interested in the way the rock ‘n’ roll art form is moving forward, transforming as musicians get their hands on an instrument and find new ways to make it sing. Son House begat Link Wray begat the Doors and Led Zeppelin, who begat U2, etc., etc. and on and on. Jack White grew up listening to all of them, and now he’s inspiring someone else. It’s the here and now, on its way to becoming history. And to crib from one of this year’s Sundance slogans, you can’t help wonder what’s next.

That youthful amazement helped him shape the film — watching nine hours of footage a day for three weeks — and endeared him to Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger, both of whom accompanied the director to Sundance to help promote the film. “The challenge was trying to come up with a concept that would unify all the material,” says Manzarek. “It was really incredible stuff, but it didn’t give you a story.” So DiCillo came up with what Manzarek calls “a psychic time warp” to propel the story. “When people call this a documentary, part of me sort of bristles,” says DiCillo. “It’s a narrative film,” agrees Manzarek. “There’s a certain twist to it. It becomes a very dramatic film.” Two other big changes for a generation raised on VH1: First, as Manzarek puts it, there are no talking heads, “nobody saying, ‘Well, I remember when I first took acid.'” Secondly, and perhaps most importantly: “You’re gonna see Jim Morrison,” says Manzarek with a smile. “Not Val Kilmer.”

Over at the Park City Library, another new doc was playing: It Might Get Loud, from Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. This one’s not a tough sell — how about getting Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge together to talk about the glories of the electric guitar? Is that something you might be interested in? Yeah. You are. It takes but the opening chords from Page to get the blood rushing, and the audience at the Saturday afternoon screening whooped and hollered as each icon appeared for the first time, thrilled at the chance to watch the famous fingers fly.

The film is set up to let the legacies of the three men swirl together, interspersed with a two-day jam session on a soundstage and educational field trips. See Page play mandolin on the lawn of the mansion where they recorded Led Zeppelin IV! Learn how the Edge uses technology to turn a simple two-note strum into the pulsating riff of “Elevation”! Hear the original guitar demo for “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and half the contents of Page’s record collection! And though Jack White’s largely manufactured backstory makes it hard to explore, the look on his face as he sits two feet away from Page and drinks in the elder statesman’s performance of “Whole Lotta Love” says it all.

White attended the Saturday afternoon screening, but participated in the post-movie Q&A in typically enigmatic style — for all his fame, the guy is still more comfortable speaking through his six-string. When asked what he’s working on, he hinted at a “new band” as well as a new album, but would expand on neither. Those are tantalizing nuggets for White Stripes/Raconteurs fans, as well as anyone interested in the way the rock ‘n’ roll art form is moving forward, transforming as musicians get their hands on an instrument and find new ways to make it sing. Son House begat Link Wray begat the Doors and Led Zeppelin, who begat U2, etc., etc. and on and on. Jack White grew up listening to all of them, and now he’s inspiring someone else. It’s the here and now, on its way to becoming history. And to crib from one of this year’s Sundance slogans, you can’t help wonder what’s next.