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The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2009).

August 27, 2010

The Scoop:
Modern rock and roll tour films tend to be pretty formulaic. Shots of the band traveling to the next venue, live performance footage featuring a hit or two, some “intimate” backstage moments, a smattering of interview questions — and repeat for 90 minutes or so. The challenge for filmmakers is to find a way to break out of that mold and make their films distinctive.

“The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights” does stand out a bit from the crowd. However that’s not because of the efforts of director Emmett Malloy, who mostly sticks to the tired script here, but because Jack and Meg White themselves fashioned a unique, memorable tour.

The film chronicles the band’s summer 2007 tour of Canada, which besides the usual big city stops included shows in every province and territory, in smaller and midsize cities that usually get skipped by touring bands. They visit places like Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Iqalnuit and Saskatoon. And in addition to playing in the largest halls in each town, they also do side shows wherever the locals will let them set up, in dive bars, town squares, pool halls and bowling alleys. The cameras follow Jack and Meg as they explore these towns, meet the locals and make connections with communities that otherwise feel about million miles away from the rock and roll world. It’s a fun and occasionally affecting journey that offers a glimpse of the true Canada, beyond the stereotypes and beyond the cosmopolitan dominance of its southern metropolises. It is in these moments that “Under Great White Northern Lights” becomes more a travelogue than a concert film.

But beyond these moments, the offstage footage also includes plenty of interview time, which is occasionally interesting but not very revelatory. It’s mostly information that has been rehashed in the music press for years, and as usual the stories are told almost entirely in Jack’s voice. It’s not Meg’s fault, of course, that her social anxiety has kept her out of the spotlight. (In fact, her anxiety got so acute that shortly after this tour, the band was forced to cancel a European tour and has not played in public since.) She doesn’t speak on camera at all until the midpoint of the film, and even after that she is so quiet that everything she says has to be subtitled. While her lack of input is understandable, it’s certainly a shame, because this film gives the impression that there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on behind those eyes.

Musically, the band is in top form, ripping through a body of blues-based songs that are a worthy update of the Americana tradition. And while the hits are certainly accounted for (“Seven Nation Army” is a highlight), most of the songs come from deep in the White Stripes catalog, along with a handful of carefully selected covers of artists such as Dolly Parton, Son House and Blind Willie McTell.

“Under Great White Northern Lights” catches the White Stripes at their height, both musically and personally, with the respect and admiration they show in their explorations of Canadian culture. And if this is the last we see of them, they certainly went out with a bang.

Best Bit:
Jack and Meg’s meeting with a group of First Nations tribal elders in Nunavut.

Side Note:
Malloy’s experience comes mostly from the world of music video, having directed clips for Blink 182, New Found Glory, Papa Roach, Jimmy Eat World and Avril Lavigne. He’s also directed three White Stripes videos — “Icky Thump,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “My Doorbell.”

Companion Viewing:
“Festival Express” (2003) and “Loudquietloud: A Film About the Pixies” (2006).

Links:
IMDb.
The White Stripes official site.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Performing “Icky Thump”:

From a free show in Whitehorse, Yukon:

Jack’s performance of “White Moon” that ends the film and moves Meg to tears:

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