||Documentaries that focus on individuals generally should focus on people of accomplishment or those with unique talents….unless the people focused on are being focused on for some higher purpose. In watching the two documentaries, It Might Get Loud and Confessions Of A Superhero, I witnessed both types of documentaries on people at, if not the absolute peak of their respective art forms, then close to it.
It Might Get Loud is a 2008 documentary on three well known guitar gods of the rock era: Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, U2’s The Edge, and The White Stripes Jack White. It was directed by Davis Guggenheim, who directed the bad, but Academy Award winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which was little more than a quasi-factual hagiography of ex-Vice president Al Gore. Not only did it distort the real Al Gore, but worse, it presented some rather dubious science in its call against global warming. Like the agitprop films of Michael Moore, that film was, technically, not even a documentary. And, in a sense, neither is It Might Get Loud. The difference is that its not being a ‘real’ documentary is a good thing, and the film is a very good one. Instead of being a straight on profile of the three guitarists, it is a blend of archival footage, ruminations of life, guitaring, and the meaning of existence, as well as a filmed get together of the three guitarists, as they jam and exchange licks.
Of the three of them, only Page is a bona fide guitar hero. Jack White is a terrific all around musician, but a guitar god he is not. The Edge seems to be a generational gap filler (the dead 1980s) for, talentwise, he’s way out of his league, and his claims about ‘riffs’ that he’s come up with on the guitar are so meager as to provoke a smile of the sort I have not had since watching an old documentary of the 1970s pop duo, The Carpenters, wherein the arranger, Richard Carpenter, beamed of his ‘genius’ at having tweaked commercial jingles into hits. Similarly, The Edge’s claims to guitar fame are dubious, in the least. Jack White fares better, and we see footage of him through three bands, as well as with a smaller doppelganger meant to be White at age 9. We see him return to his hometown of Detroit and his recollections of being an outcast guitarist and real musician in 1980s and 90s Detroit is interesting, especially considering he’s of the same generation as Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, the now almost forgotten white rapper of the early part of the last decade, who is still clinging on to fame by trying to associate himself with Detroit, whereas White embodies all the angst and terror of that hellhole at a level Mathers cannot even fathom, much less touch musically. Just listening to a few of White’s improvs and riffs at song making show him at a level well beyond most rappers today.
Then there’s Page, who, even more so than Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, or Jimi Hendrix, embodies his generation of guitar god, for his riffs and pushing of the boundaries of the instrument blow the others away. We see requisite videos of the Led Zep days, and get interesting anecdotes of the recording of classic songs, but we also see Page in his preteen skiffle days, his days as a session musician, and his debunking of assorted legends, and some interesting interaction with the other two guitarists. But, the thing that separates this film from most others of its sort are ineffable. There are odd visuals, talks on creativity, interesting moments caught on tape, together or alone, of the guitarists, and that nameless thing that sometimes sneaks its way into a work of art, especially a work of surprising complexity and depth, which It Might Get Loud is. No, it’s not an Errol Morris documentary, but, considering his last effort, Guggenheim’s 98 minute long film is not a hagiography, but a welcome amelioration.
By contrast, Matt Ogens’ 2007 documentary, Confessions Of A Superhero, is an excellent film, clocks in at five minutes shorter than Guggenheim’s, and is perhaps a near-great one. It follows not three famed musicians, but four undistinguished losers in life, whose lives, natheless, have some dignity and worth, even as they shill for tips to have photos taken with tourists (which, if too aggressive, can get them arrested for panhandling, loitering, or worse). It follows the lives of four wannabe actors who dress up as superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard, and follows them for several years through the travails and delusions they suckle and abandon. The four are Maxwell Allen- who dresses as Batman, and looks like an older, uglier George Clooney; Christopher Dennis- a tall, skinny Superman, who claims to be the bastard love child of theater and film actress Sandy Dennis (although her clan denies his claim); Jennifer Gerht- an average looking brunet who poses as Wonder Woman, marries a loser on a whim, and has her marriage fall apart on camera; and Joe McQueen- a young black man, who spent four years homeless, after arriving in L.A. during the Rodney King riots, and dresses up as The Incredible Hulk. In certain ways, these people are almost real life characters from a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but they all suffer from delusions induced by the lure of celebrity in America. And if one does not think the lust for fame and fortune can harm, this film dispels that myth, as well, even more convincingly than The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, another documentary on a similar sort of fame seeker.
Dennis is perhaps the most sane member of the quartet, for he seems to know himself, even as he has an apartment strewn with Superman memorabilia, and his girlfriend thinks him odd. Eventually, the duo fly to Metropolis, Illinois, and Chris enters a contest, thinking he’ll win because he actually looks a bit like erst-Superman Christopher Reeve. Reeve has just died, that year, and Dennis thinks this will improve his odds. As the contest ends, the camera shows Dennis’s palpable disappointment at not finishing in the Top Three, then pulling back to reveal the winner as a pot-bellied Batman who does not even attempt any superhero posing. It’s an oddly touching moment, as Dennis realizes one dream seems to have passed him; thus, he asks his girlfriend to marry him, and they get wed with him in his costume. Yet, throughout the film one gets the sense that he has some deeper problems. Whether or not he’s related to Sandy Dennis is in dispute, but his claims of her deathbed wish for him to pursue acting seem a tad to Frank Capran to be believed.
Definitely not to be believed are Batman Allen’s claims of being a guilt-ridden Mob hitman simply because he’s trying to justify his anger control issues. He claims many things, and even confesses murder, on camera, to a psychiatrist, but his story falls apart as he does not know how to handle a gun, is a klutz at martial arts, and even gets arrested for disturbing a picket line. His wife accepts his flaws, and seems to love his Clooneyesque looks. His superhero cohorts even doubt his tall tales. By film’s end, Allen ends up out of the superhero game and working as a seasonal security guard on a movie lot, hoping a talent scout or producer will notice him. In the one scene from a film that we see it’s clear that he has virtually no talent.
The same is true for all the others. Joe McQueen, as example, actually lands a small part in a parody of a Bruce Lee film, but when we see him he’s doing 1970s retro-blaxploitation Chris Rock gimmicks, yet thinking this shows his real acting talent. Other moments show him returning to where he slept when homeless for four years, and almost passing out in his Hulk costume, because of the suffocating heat. Gehrt’s ups and downs, other than her disintegrating marriage, include her dissatisfaction with her ineffective agent, and her search for a church to attend. We learn of her needing to get out of her small Southern town, as a teenager, and her marriage to a man she knew for only two weeks. Like all of them, there seems to be something missing in her life. Whereas, in the man, this absence is easily seen, in Gehrt its more nebulous. Yet, when we see her with her acting coach we see she has almost no talent, and clings to bon mots about ‘almost’ getting a job in a commercial. Yet, the film empathizes with her and the others. It feels for them, even the delusional Allen. It never mocks them, and shows that films that put seemingly uninteresting things into themselves can transcend that content by widening the context and digging more deeply for substantive issues. Or, maybe, things just fall into place, and the real reason for the film surfaces in shooting or editing, just as, late in the film, all four ‘heroes’ get some fame when they are featured in a magazine, on the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk show, and, subsequently, this film.
Neither It Might Get Loud nor Confessions Of A Superhero are great films, but they do have a depth and craft to them, as well as a love of their subject matter that moves them above almost all such similar fare. They are not films one absolutely must see or have a hole in one’s existence, but they are, indeed, good enough works of art, and documents of contemporary culture, that if one gets a chance to watch them, on an outlet like Netflix, it is an opportunity to take and enjoy.