A few months ago, I made a bet with a friend over how well Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the infectious and highly acclaimed rock doc about the greatest heavy metal band you’ve never heard of, would perform at the box office. I loved the movie, and so, on a rush of optimism, I predicted that it would make more money than Some Kind of Monster, the Metallica-goes-to-therapy doc from 2004. Both films carried that “real-life Spinal Tap” cachet, but I wagered that Anvil!, with its feisty and unexpectedly touching troupe of Canadian headbangers, had a triumph-of-the-underdog story that might well trump even the infamous, embattled metal gods of Metallica. But it was not to be: Some Kind of Monster grossed $1.2 million — whereas Anvil!, with its domestic run all but played out, has managed to bring in only about half of that.
One shouldn’t read too much into those numbers, of course. The real bottom line is that they’re both terrific films. Still, I can’t help but wonder if rock & roll documentaries, with each passing year, are facing a steeper and steeper climb. Over the last decade, so many terrific ones have come and gone without causing so much as a ripple of noise. I’m thinking of movies like End of the Century (2003), the scrappy and electrifying Ramones doc (which, admittedly, had its distribution gummed up by music-rights issues), or MC5: A True Testimonial (2002), or Anvil!, which should have reached a bigger audience than it did. I wonder if what’s working against these films is a very basic factor: Audiences feel as if they don’t have to bother with them because they can, more or less, already see all this stuff for free — on the music-television channels; or, increasingly, on YouTube.
If so, I hope that factor doesn’t tamp down the enthusiasm for It Might Get Loud, the fantastic guitar-god doc that has only just opened (this past weekend, it brought in a sterling $92,000 on only seven screens). There’s no denying that parts of the movie could be excerpts from a very special episode of VH1’s Classic Albums — as when Jimmy Page, for instance, stands in the cavernous entranceway of the English country-manor recording studio Headley Grange and explains that the epic, dinosaur-thud drum sound of “When the Levee Breaks” was achieved, in part, by recording it on that very spot. (It’s great to think that some of the most apocalyptically thunderous drumming in the history of rock & roll was recorded in what looks like the setting for The Remains of the Day.)
But It Might Get Loud also brings you close to Page, The Edge, and Jack White — not just to their techniques, but to their artful let-it-loose rapture — in a way that no VH1 show ever will. My own favorite scene arrives when Page, now an elegant, long-white-haired, moon-faced chap who at moments resembles a cooler version of the aging Marlon Brando, takes you through the primitive sonic genius of a song that, for him, changed the DNA of rock & roll: Link Wray’s “Rumble,” the 1958 slow-walk boogie that introduced distorted guitar and feedback — that is, introduced the guitar as an instrument of anarchy. (You may recognize it from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction. It is also, according to Wikipedia, the only instrumental song ever banned from the airwaves.)
Page pulls out his vinyl copy, slips it onto the turntable, and, with a grin spreading over his face, he falls under its spell all over again, like the teenager he was when he first heard it. He describes and demonstrates, moment by moment, how Link Wray’s riffs get fuzzier and crazier, more demonic and momentous. Before long, you realize that you’re seeing something rare and kind of awesome: It’s Jimmy Page…playing air guitar. An Olympian rock idol swept away by his own idol. The magic of rock docs doesn’t get much louder than that.
So do you think the rock doc has a future? And, if so, what would you like to see in one that no music channel could show you?