The White Stripes
Under Great White Northern Lights CD/DVD
Rating: 3.5/5.0, 4.0/5.0
Label: Warner Bros./Third Man
“The White Stripes are simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world.” Though Jack White appears put off, perhaps slightly bemused, by this assessment in Under Great White Northern Lights, a 90-minute documentary that follows the duo’s 2007 trek across Canada, this small caveat could be the defining statement on one of the most influential rock acts of the past decade.
On indefinite hiatus while White pursues other projects such as the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, the White Stripes’ sonic footprint still weighs heavy as we enter this second decade of the 21st century. Despite the emergence of freak folk as the tastemaker’s newest darlings, the undying elements of the blues informed much of the White Stripes music, trussed up with pounding guitar and booming drums. Yet, the blues will never go out of style and neither will the music of the Stripes, something that still sounds fresh on both the documentary and CD that cherry-picks the best performances of the tour.
The music business has a predictable trajectory, where a band goes from playing small clubs to bigger clubs, then eventually graduating to ballrooms. The lucky few who don’t plateau sometimes can fill a theatre or even an arena. But there’s a “don’t look back” attitude that is predictable and undeniable in most of these bands. Rather than allow his handlers and label to tell him where to go and when to play, White used his power to play a tour that hit every Canadian province and territory in 2007, mixing in impromptu day performances at bowling alleys and on public buses with more traditional evening shows. While a case can be made for the powerful whimsy of a rock star dropping into a café and playing a set at his discretion, White at least has the tenacity to continually shake things up rather than settle into the tried-and-true pampered life of a rock god on a big label with bullshit riders on his contract demanding rose petals and crushed flowers.
So just like the White Stripes, the Under Great White Northern Lights film is a mix of calculated business-as-usual and snatches of realism that portrays Jack and Meg White as excited dreamers who have attained their hearts’ deepest desire. Jack, the consummate raconteur, is the brash, talkative showman while Meg barely says a word, and when she does speak, her brief statements are subtitled to help us understand her nearly inaudible mumblings. But Meg speaks loud enough with her drums and the song segments we do get to see are exhilarating.
Jack White insists that beneath the brother/sister mythology and color-coded dress code, the music has always been real. Whether tackling a haunting cover of “Jolene” or exploding into “I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” White does have a point. Rarely have we seen a showman as electric and electrifying as Jack White and the sound produced by two people is absolutely amazing. While the CD is a mixed bag of songs pulled mostly from later albums, the DVD gives a more varied, if not truncated, look at the White Stripes’ oeuvre. The lavish boxed set (not provided for review) also includes a 135-minute concert film of the Stripes’ 10th anniversary concert in Nova Scotia, but Under Great White Northern Lights is not about being just a concert film. Rather, it is meant to further the Stripes’ mythology and also give a more human look at the duo that hides under a veneer of double talk and storytelling.
And that is where the real/fake conundrum comes to a head in the film. The duo meets with a group of tribal elders in the remote city of Iqaluit at a community center. White plays them a song on the guitar and is then regaled by a traditional song on accordion by one of the members of the audience. While one has to wonder just why the fuck the White Stripes are hanging out in an old folks home, the joyful spontaneity of the scene belies the calculated move of visiting the tribal elders.
Of course there are numerous scenes of the pair walking in desolate landscapes, scowling and looking bewildered in slow-mo in a mode perfected by U2 and used by countless bands since. This is just par for the course for a band film these days. But then there are scenes where Jack tries to get Meg to talk, forcing her to admit he doesn’t always talk over her while talking over her at the same time. But perhaps the most candid moment comes at the end when Jack plays “White Moon” on the piano. Meg sits next to him on the bench and soon begins to cry. When he finishes playing, Jack cradles her head and whispers something in her ear. Is this final image a candid moment with a band that does not do candid? Or is it a calculated attempt by the Whites to trick us into thinking it’s a human face. Maybe it’s both. Maybe they are the same thing.