Review: The White Stripes: “Under Great White Northern Lights” (Blu-Ray)
The greatest liability facing The White Stripes is that the thematic envelope they’ve designed for themselves — red, white and black color scheme, faux brother-and-sister back story, primal guitar and drums austerity — risks making everything about the band seem careful and considered. Their greatest asset is Jack and Meg White’s acknowledgment of that risk and creating their art while perched on that tightrope between knowing post-modernism and deeply felt self-expression.
If their chosen medium was painting, it would be like constructing meticulous frames to contain abstract splatter canvasses. But The White Stripes chose rock n roll, and the grand artistic gesture they undertook with their 2007 tour of Canada in support of Icky Thump, playing big cities and backwaters, corporate sponsored music sheds, bowling alleys and buses, from sea to sea to sea, may prove to be their masterpiece. Director Emmett Malloy has, in this 90-minute documentary, largely succeeded in bottling that lightning. Certainly to get the full effect, you had to be there. But if you could not be there (I was to attend the Toronto stop on this tour but a last minute ticket foul up meant I missed out), then Under Great White Northern Lights gives you a pretty powerful survey of what you may have missed.
Malloy shoots the film in either grainy black-and-white or saturated color (nicely captured on the Blu-Ray edition; the film is being packaged in several iterations alongside a live CD from the tour), and the concert sequences are edited with great feeling for the sense of the live music experience, eschewing the quick-cutting montage of so many live documents, where dynamic editing is too often used to mask sluggish performance. The White Stripes don’t need enhancement. The main task for Malloy and crew must have been just to keep up with a duo whose almost telepathic onstage communication means they don’t need set lists and no two concerts are alike.
It’s never adequately explained in the film why Canada was the beneficiary of such undivided attention. Jack White tells the camera the band had never done a full tour of the country, but then not many major touring acts bother to charter a private plane to zip band and crew across the northernmost regions of the world’s second largest land mass in order to play to perhaps a few hundred thrilled or bewildered locals in places like Iqaluit, the capital of the northern territory of Nunavut. True, the band’s original home base of Detroit was located just across the river from Canada, but that never prompted Mitch Ryder to gig from Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, British Columbia to an open air stage on St. George Street in St. John’s Newfoundland. I prefer to think that they chose their northern neighbor based on color coordination with the country’s flag.
As with so much else about The White Stripes, once this concept of playing unorthodox gigs in out-of-the-way locations is struck, Meg and Jack White run riot within that defined context. The camera captures some furiously delivered mutant blues rock before adoring, sweaty crowds, or some wonderfully offhand shows — aboard the #2 bus in (my hometown) Winnipeg, a YMCA daycare in Toronto, a Saskatoon bowling alley — in front of audiences gleeful at their good fortune.
Offstage, there are the occasional cliched rock-doc slow-mo montages of the group with Jack’s voiceover discussing the band’s past and present. There are also some unexpected tender moments, as when Jack and Meg visit with tribal elders in Iqaluit. Jack earnestly asks the elders for their interpretation of what ravens symbolize, then obliges with a Blind Willie McTell number. Most startlingly, after the group performs a 10th anniversary gig in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, Jack and Meg are filmed seated at a grand piano as Jack performs “White Moon.” For reasons never explained, tears suddenly stream down Meg’s face and she collapses into the arms of Jack (in real life, her ex-husband). It’s touching and only a cad wouldn’t feel like an intruder onto a very private moment.
There’s nothing sensible about The White Stripes’ Canadian tour, which is not to say it was a senseless gesture. On the contrary, in a time when so much about the wild inspiration that was rock n roll’s foundation has been neutered, it’s heartening to see musicians hurl themselves with such commitment into such a crazy notion, and so gratifying that they thought to create this entertaining souvenir.