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The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

March 16, 2010  |  11:00am
The White Stripes: <em>Under Great White Northern Lights</em>

Release Date: March 16
Director: Emmett Malloy
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros., 92 mins.

Curious, all-encompassing minimalists celebrate 10th anniversary by traversing Canadian countryside

Whenever Jack and Meg White make music in Under Great White Northern Lights (the new documentary about their 2007 Canadian tour), they’re a peppermint swirl of electricity—the culmination of decades of greasy blues and DIY punk; the American garage writ large. They’re the heirs apparent to everyone from Ledbelly to Bill Monroe to John Lee Hooker to the MC5, Led Zeppelin, the Flat Duo Jets and Nirvana.

Moreso than countless slick modern bluesmen, newgrass-picking hippie bands and rootsy singer/songwriters pretending the last 40 years never happened, The White Stripes have synthesized the canon of traditional American music into something fresh and relevant. Others revisit the past through simple nostalgia, but when Jack and Meg play together, they step through a portal into some ancient juke joint, revival tent or concert hall, grab our musical history by the sleeve and drag it kicking and screaming into the present.

The duo’s chops are in stark contrast with their highly stylized image. The Whites realized early on that every non-musical decision they’ve made—from the mythmaking of their brother/sister gag to the eye-catching presence of their sharply dressed road crew in Northern Lights—was an artistic choice that could add to the overall experience. In one of this doc’s numerous and revealing interview segments, Jack makes an important clarification: “The biggest misconception … [is that] every single thing about The White Stripes is premeditated. Our stage setup and the way we present ourselves and dress is premeditated, but it’s pretty much something that was premeditated 10 years ago. … When it comes to the music, that’s not premeditated at all. The music is really completely in charge of us.”

The band’s explosive performances in Northern Lights (from the inspired “Black Math” to the jammed-out “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” and the epic cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”) make it difficult to argue the contrary. Jack and Meg careen from riff to riff, idea to idea, clinging for dear life as they dig their spurs into the mythical rodeo beast of rock ’n’ roll. Their lean guitar-and-drums approach allows them to turn on a dime, following any stormy muse they please.

Both members of this stripped-down twosome have been chastised for their lack of musical ability, which is rather comical considering how much the Stripes’ frontman channels the same ’70s guitarists critics once maligned for being too good. And while Meg is no Neil Peart, her attack is big and booming, and it fits. Her sound—a blank canvas as porcelain-pure as her skin—is as much a part of The White Stripes’ sound as Jack’s tortured wails and squealing guitar feedback.

After a brief marriage and 10 years as touring bandmates, they have an unspoken understanding—picking up each other’s cues and inside jokes. They share moments in Northern Lights where the world past the end of the stage may as well not exist.

Offstage, though, they engage with that outside world. Instead of holing up in hotels and shuffling from arena to arena, they’re out connecting with the communities they’re touring through. They trade songs with Inuit elders, throw spontaneous free shows at pool halls, a YMCA camp and a bowling alley in Saskatoon, and pop up on a fishing boat to play Muddy Waters’ “Catsfish Blues.” Their love of what they do—their desire to share their music in such a forthright way—is as admirable as their discography.

Watch the Under Great White Northern Lights trailer:

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