In this unique review, Nathan Lind and Mackenzie McAninch share their opinions (and arguments) about the new White Stripes documentary: Under Great White Northern Lights. The film has already been released in select theaters and film festivals but check here for updated information on where to view the film.
[Mackenzie= Not in bold] Kicking off the film with an ecstatic version of “Let’s Shake Hands,” the camera work was fluid as it bounced back and forth from color to black and white with the song. However the most driving part of the film, the sound quality, is what really stood out to me. I felt like I almost needed ear plugs in the theatre [You always need ear plugs at a Stripes show….they are loud] and the sound was just so crisp and clear. The concert footage in this film is so life-like; it really felt like being at one of their shows (which I’ve done twice).
[Nathan= In bold] The sound quality is great, as would be expected from a documentary covering live music.
Jack White is known for chasing high notes that he sometimes can’t wrestle down to the ground, however during the song “Black Jack Davey,” he sounded sweet and pure enough to quiet some critics. Meg also sounded really good during “In the Cold Cold Night,” where on record she sounded a little strained. The crowd ate that up and cheered her on like an indie diva.
Were we watching the same film here? The crowd was cheering her on out of encouragement because she can’t sing. You can sense her uncomfortableness throughout the performance, and it was obvious she was off-key through much of it.
I think the crowd involvement was because it’s a sultry, sexy song and yes, Jack was allowing her a “moment.” Of course she’s not as good as even Elephant contributor Holly Golightly, but if you go back to that album and listen to that song, then hear this live version, there is much improvement.
Oof. I just don’t see it, man. Not in this case.
That’s not to shy away from the camera work either. At times, the backstage and interviewing shots were so sporadic that it’s similar to moments in Natural Born Killers. And in concert, a great angle is from the back of the stage facing the crowd, so viewers get to see Jack and Meg’s view perspective.
I’ll touch on this more later, but yeah, the concert footage is great. Sound, camerawork; they do a great job of capturing the live performance of the Stripes.
The idea for this whole tour in general was that The White Stripes would tour all through Canada, performing in every territory and province. Some of the most remote places in the country would host this band that many of them had never heard of. This created a task for Jack and Meg; they had to re-visit the old days and win over a crowd that often didn’t know them. Let’s face it: Iqaluit likely doesn’t have a record store, let alone indie rock selections. And the song selections were just as diverse as the band, pretty much touching down on every album they have ever created. Watch out for an intimate version of “Jolene.”
In the style of The SXSW Festival, the day shows often stole the thunder. At each town, they chose to hold impromptu shows at unique locations. There is coverage of their infamous one note show; they jammed out on a city bus in Winnipeg; they played a bowling alley and sang “We’re Going to Be Friends” at a grade school. And what could be better than hearing Jack play “Catfish Blues” literally on a boat? They kept the crowds guessing, often only giving a ten minute notice on when a show would occur.
I agree with the above two paragraphs. The day-shows and one-off performances are one of the main reasons to go see this documentary. They’re spontaneous, fun, and the crowd genuinely loves what they’re seeing/hearing. It almost does feel like you’re right there watching as it happens.
For the hardcore White Stripes fan that is desperately waiting for Jack to talk about his home life or what his favorite meal is, you will be disappointed. Much like It Might Get Loud, this film keeps the focus on the band and the tour. You will get to travel backstage and see their frustrations after a bad show and also see Meg doze off with a lit cigarette in hand due to exhaustion. Jack also takes the time to go into great detail about how the band is based on a hard work ethic and how it’s constantly pushed to the max in order to keep creativity flowing.
For me, the interviews in this documentary are where this film falls flat. Maybe Jack White has an outstanding work ethic, but I don’t see why he should be praised for that alone. He’s no different in that respect than thousands of other musicians. My problem with this film (and the White Stripes in general) is their lack of understanding with one of their main musical influences: the Blues.
It’s a very tricky, loaded question to claim this genre as a musical influence (I’m not even going to touch the racial element here). When people think of adjectives to describe the Blues, heartfelt, passionate, emotional, and haunting come to mind. Specifically, words that for the most part, don’t describe the White Stripes’ music. The White Stripes for me, are one of those bands whose work you admire and like a lot, but don’t really love. Save for only a few songs (“Hotel Yorba,” “We’re Going To Be Friends,” “Seven Nation Army”), there’s not a lot of emotional connection to their music, which for all the talk about how creative and prolific White has been, is really the most important thing about a song.
Okay, first off you know they had to do some sort of interviewing as it is a documentary. But if you don’t want to hear him talk about influences and what they are like as musicians, then what do you really want them to talk about? I think that hearing what musicians he grew up listening to is more interesting than what brand of guitar strings he uses or what brand of cigarettes Meg smokes. It’s not important. This is supposed to be about who they are, what got them here and what they do. You don’t have to like who they are and what they do though.
Of course they’re going to be interviewed as a part of this. I wasn’t disputing otherwise. Look, part of the blues (or the specific influences mentioned in the film or by the songs he covers…Blind Willie McTell, Son House, etc.) is covered up in mystery when it comes to the performers. White has that part down pat with the image he’s created. I just don’t think musically, that same direct path is there. Or at least to the amount he claims his music is.
And as for the diatribe about his work ethic, you’re just trying to get me riled up again like we’ve done before, but I firmly state that he’s likely the hardest working musician in the business. But we’ll save that for another day.
I can think of two artists just as or more prolific than White right now. Ryan Adams and Robert Pollard. They don’t work as hard as White does?
And if the White Stripes’ music isn’t based around blues, then what is it based around? Country? Punk? Pop? I think they have actually thrown all of those elements into the pot, but the 12 bar blues is present in so much of their music. The blues is heartfelt, passionate, emotional, and haunting, for sure. However it’s also raw, basic, standard, borrowed and story telling. It’s based around a simple structure and then it’s up to the musician to add other elements to make it interesting. The White Stripes do that. Your average listener doesn’t even understand that the blues is probably over ¾ of the Stripes’ music. Led Zeppelin did the same thing.
I’ll give you that. It’s quite possible my idea of the blues (or at the least, my idea of the artists he’s mentioned in the film) comes from a different place than where White does. We may both be right, we may both be wrong. To be clear: I don’t have a problem with his feelings; just the delivery musically.
“There’s nothing contrived about the music,” Jack White says midway through the film. “In the beginning, our image was contrived, especially in the color scheme and the idea of ‘three’, but that’s it.” Then, incredulously, right after he says this, he makes reference to Meg as his “sister.” Huh? Isn’t the description of his relationship to Meg the most contrived thing of all with the White Stripes? Especially since everyone knows the truth. Unfortunately, the “mystery” surrounding their relationship is arguably the most authentic tie to the Blues the White Stripes have.
Can’t agree with you more on this one. Ever notice how he usually has a new clothing and/or facial hair style for each album? In the beginning they pulled these “stunts” to get attention and make them unique in a crowd, which I can understand that. Hell, John Lennon always felt like he sold out with the Beatles’ cookie-cutter pop sound from day one. But I think the Stripes are established enough now that these silly things are not important anymore. Of course, I again disagree with you on the authentic blues comment.
If it’s unimportant, then why do they keep pushing those silly things forward in interviews? It’s getting to the point where their relationship is now seen as kind of creepy, instead of just cute like an inside joke would be.
Meg White is notoriously shy and she seemed pretty annoyed by the cameras backstage the whole time. In fact, she’s so quite that every word she spoke was translated over in subtitles. Shortly after this tour, The White Stripes had to cancel their remaining tour dates because Meg was struggling with acute anxiety. Many ticket holders (including myself) were upset that this cancellation happened. Now I won’t spoil the end of the film for you, but it pretty much gives an explanation without words on why that tour likely had to be cancelled and your heart strings will be tugged on a little bit. I will openly take this opportunity to apologize to Meg White for my selfish behavior of being angry in 2007 over a cancelled show. I now understand.
Speaking of “contrived,” I’m left to wonder why exactly that scene is chosen to end the documentary? Film school 101: A basic move is to tie in ideas and motives at the end that were presented earlier in the film. Since a fair amount of time Jack spends speaking about authenticity and lack there of, it’s a little more puzzling. To be clear: I don’t doubt the emotions behind what Meg does; I just doubt the scene in general. The movie barely hints at Meg’s anxiety issues throughout, and we’re now supposed to view this as foreshadowing for what happened later that summer? No way. It’s such a turn of events from the rest of the movie, I was left wondering if this was tacked on at the end to leave viewers feeling like they’ve seen something ”important” as opposed to “lighthearted and fun” as much of the movie is.
Yes, but they have been doing things different and not how they are supposed to be done their whole career. Would KISS ever do a free show (hell, anywhere for that matter) on a city bus? Had you heard of many guy/girl rock duos before them? How many bands cut albums in 3 weeks or less these days? My guess is that they just decided to break the rules once again, and end the film on a totally different note. Much like how The Sopranos did. I think going out with footage of the end of some rocking show they did would have been awesome as well, but isn’t that just kind of expected almost? Why not mix it up?
I guess. The execution could have been better, IMO. I left the film feeling kind of puzzled at what I’d just seen, and I’m betting I’m not the only one.
Like Mackenzie said earlier, if you’re going to see this thinking you’re going to learn something important and meaningful about the Stripes, then I’d advise you to stay home. If you’re going to see this for the Canadian tour and one-off shows, it’s a very entertaining documentary.
And the final verdict? Nathan=3.5/5. Mackenzie=5/5
All images and video courtesy of The White Stripes’ Myspace page.