Rock Docs

film 4 of 5

Under Great White Northern Lights

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

Jack White comes off much better here than in that terrible triple guitar summit movie (Guggenheim, 2008; q.v.). It may be the setting: geological St. John’s, elemental Yellowknife (!), vivid town squares and old folks’ homes and such. (There’s even a bowling alley, which comes off as kind of precious, but still a good try.) The combination of this primordial geography and the pretty, small-scaled humanity that grows out of it—Canada!—leads to a more seemly rooting of the rock star stuff.

So this is good: celebrity, geographical vastness, eternal expanses and the communities that form in the face thereof, everything balanced and in its proper place. Under the Great Northern Lights is actually, fascinatingly like the NFB’s 1951 Elizabethan curio, Royal Journey . (It’s here: That milestone’s kind of colonialist, ultimately fetching regality is here replaced by these two young Americans, trying to be famous and sort of decent at the same time.

Mind you the film does lose track of its cross-Canada conceit, so that we only get the setting, or the interaction, in a glancing way. The White Stripes are always so noisily front and centre that the peripheries that they were trying to get to stay peripheral. Not such a sin, probably; youth, and the filmmakers need to sell the film. Plus, the band is interesting, and comes off pretty well. Jack is always singing at the breaking point, where chest and head voices come into conflict. It makes for a ragged, vivid, vulnerable sound.  And that Meg! Still waters?  Earth mother? A cipher? Maybe she’s a plain gal who got caught up in something, and tried to do her best. Pretty cool drumming!

We also get some really clear, kind of uncomfortable illustrations of how the presence of the camera complicates and maybe invalidates things. We will now film Meg trying to take a nap. We will make Jack try to attend to his ex-wife (lots lying between those lines!), and to their various hosts, to the locals, and the camera crew, and the implied or anticipated or perceived audience, all at the same time! It’s the camera game—D.A. Pennebaker, in discussion with Alan Rosenthal, U of C Press 1972—like crazy. The very last sequence, in which Jack sits at the piano and plays, and Meg sits at the piano and cries, is actually kind of obscene. You can’t pretend that this is mere observational cinema. Jean Rouch (1961, etc., q.v.) had it right—either step up, establish what’s happening, interact and minister, or turn the damned camera off.