Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Soul Mates: It Might Get Loud and The September Issue

The bright red T-shirt-and-pants ensemble that Jack White frequently sported on stage to serve the signature look of his "brother-and-sister" band The White Stripes bore more resemblance to a glossy Target ad than to something you’d see featured on the cover of a fashion magazine. Likewise, beyond her ubiquitous celebrity sunglasses, the only reason you’d look at Vogue editor Anna Wintour and think about rock and roll music would be because her slender neck resembles that of an electric guitar. White and Wintour, fashion conscious though they are, belong to entirely different worlds, which is why you wouldn’t expect a pair of documentaries featuring these icons to feel deeply similar. And yet they do.

Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud and R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue are movies about dissimilar subjects that (quite accidentally) manage to serve as tremendous companion pieces to one another by sharing the same spirit. Both documentaries are about artists. It Might Get Loud brings together White (of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather), Led Zepplin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge for a powwow in which the legendary electric guitarists from different generations discuss the origins of their trademark sounds. The September Issue, meanwhile, observes Wintour and, just as often, creative director Grace Coddington as they (and others) work tirelessly to create a phonebook-sized edition of Vogue so artful that it doesn’t just influence the fashion industry but makes a fashion statement all by itself. But the true symmetry of these films comes from a deeper place. At their most compelling, these documentaries aren’t just profiles of artists but examinations of the relationship between the artists and their art. With a light touch, these films demonstrate that whatever a song or a photo spread might mean to us, they mean even more to their authors. If you’ve ever created something according to your passions, these films have an intoxicating allure.

The more straightforward of the two docs is It Might Get Loud. Using a staged three-man summit and jam session as its unifying core, Guggenheim’s film spends equal time diverging into the back stories of Page, The Edge and White in an effort to trace the roots of their musical artistry. Uncovered are surprisingly alike tales of improvised instruments, influential albums and dumb luck. What becomes clear is that these men weren’t enticed by fame but by musical obsession – the quest for a sound. It consumed them, and thus that obsession receives Guggenheim’s equally undivided attention. Tempting as it might have been to get Page to dish on Robert Plant or have The Edge describe touring with Bono, Guggenheim passes on the typical rock star plotlines involving the discovery of fame or commercial success; instead he follows the music. This isn’t a film about how White “made it” as a musician but about why a rather obscure Son House song made White want to make music in the first place.

The affability of these men when talking about their love affair with music is a huge part of the film’s charm. The magical moments include Page playing air guitar to Link Wray’s “Rumble,” his face glowing like a 12-year-old boy just back from coaxing a kiss out of the pretty girl in school, the personal significance of the song unmistakable. Equally enchanting is a moment during the jam session when Page rips into the Zepplin classic “Whole Lotta Love” and The Edge and White let the fa├žade of cool rock-star detachment crack, unable suppress a pair of gleeful Christmas morning smiles. Or how about the moment when The Edge plays long forgotten demo tapes for U2 hits like “Where the Streets Have No Name” and listens to the band trying to find itself, shaking his head with the amusement of someone who looks at a high school yearbook photo and marvels at all that was still to be defined. If on stage these guitarists exude a sense of divine inspiration, It Might Get Loud reveals how much effort – blissful, gritty effort – went into finding those perfect notes.

The same goes for The September Issue, which turns the annual mega edition of Vogue inside out to show us its seams. If the average consumer pages through Vogue and sees a declaration of what Wintour thinks is “in,” Cutler’s film suggests that perhaps even more than that it’s a brave declaration of Wintour’s self-worth. Each September is a chance for Wintour to reassert her dominance both in the fashion and publishing worlds. The September edition of Vogue must be both the definitive statement on style and the utmost in fashion magazine publishing or else Wintour won’t have lived up to her enormous, self-made expectations. That’s a respectful observation, to be clear, not a criticism. Satirized by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Wintour’s icy demeanor is the stuff of legend, but Cutler gives her personality the context it deserves. Just like Jack White plays the guitar until his fingers bleed, Wintour has no capacity for surrender.

She is not made of stone, however. In various talking-head interviews and in shots of Wintour interacting with her daughter, Cutler finds a softer side. There are no tearful confessions worthy of Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey, mind you. Wintour’s aura of impenetrability doesn’t crack like Anton Ego’s at the end of Ratatouille. But there’s no denying how much Vogue means to Wintour, and her few glimpses of vulnerability are as touching as her unblinking bluntness can be awkward. Wintour is impenetrable, yes, but she’s also naked; what we see is what we get. That’s probably why Coddington, a former model turned fashion photography visionary who is arguably the star of this documentary, continues to work with her. To earn Wintour’s stamp of approval is to earn her respect. And if the compliment comes from Wintour, it can’t be bullshit.

Cutler’s documentary is a curious thing because as much as he seems to want to take a fly-on-the-wall approach within Vogue headquarters, folks are always talking to the camera like it’s Jiminy Cricket. (Maybe it’s a fashion thing – people drawn to camera lenses like moths to the flame, to stick with the developing insect theme.) Those hoping Cutler’s inside-access camera would capture some of the oft-lampooned diva-esque drama of the fashion world will be largely disappointed. The documentary has moments of modest drama, and there’s one diva so lost in the fashion fantasy that he plays tennis in a scarf, but for the most part The September Issue is a documentation of old-fashioned hard work. Even in the fashion industry, it turns out, the business side of the magic factory is covered in elbow grease.

Thus, it’s a bit ironic that both It Might Get Loud and The September Issue feel effortless almost to a fault. By today’s trends, they are underproduced, short on the sort of “look at me” flamboyance that announces a documentary as a profound piece of art. Guggenheim and Cutler have created movies that are loose, casual and entirely without malice, and, actually, that’s a good thing. Regardless of misconceptions to the contrary, documentaries needn’t be as rigid as science projects or as eviscerating as criminal investigations. These Guggenheim and Cutler docs are modest, and proudly so. These are films more determined to showcase artists than to draw attention to their own artistry.


Richard Bellamy said...

I really enjoyed your review of these documentaries that does a great job of tracing similarities between two films about very different sorts of people and creative pursuits. I enjoyed reading this even though I'm not likely to see these films due to lack of availability - although I've seen the preview for It Might Get Loud a number of times this summer during my travels. The preview made it look like a very entertaining experience. Documentaries seem to be enjoying a renaissance these days!

elgringo said...

I caught September Issue at Sundance and liked it quite a bit.