Review: Under Great White Northern Lights
Occasionally it’s hard being stuck in the past. Occasionally furiously typing away about the first album of the White Stripes is hard when there are exciting new projects going on outside. Occasionally one must write ones thoughts while they are still fresh in one’s mind. So I interrupt my usual schedule to bring you my review of the new and much-anticipated White Stripes movie Under Great White Northern Lights. These reviews will be a regular thing and accompany any major Jack White new release. So about the film….
The film opens with a cameraman being dispatched amongst a group of befuddled and excited fans looking for the venue of the Stripes oncoming secret show. One slightly anxious fan innocently asks the cameraman to point him in the direction of the show. Later on in the film we see a man outside a show wearing a horse mask that covers his entire head. His justification: “there was a horse thing with their latest album and it was pretty cool” (I’m paraphrasing that quote as I remember it). This immediately makes clear what the tour was about, bringing candy cane frenzy to Canada. All of Canada.
When you watch the secret shows you can literally feel the White Stripes, both expanding and making a deeper connection with their fan base. The first one of the tour and the first one we are shown, Jack and Meg walk, with little fanfare, to the centre of LePage park with screams of ‘welcome to Whitehorse’ coming from every corner. Jack picks up his acoustic guitar and they start playing a hushed, tender rendition of Black Jack Davey. As Jack tells this magical gypsy story to the crowd he assembled in less than an hour you realise the magic of what you are witnessing and the fact that it is caught on film feels almost unreal. But this gig was probably the most orthodox secret show of the film with scenes jumping from Jack bowling an eight while playing Let’s Build A Home, not dropping a note, to him and Meg leading an overexcited crowd through a sing-a-long of Wheels On The Bus, quickly cutting to a youth centre where a child, of no more than about 6 or 7, is given the mic by Jack to do his version. Suddenly Canada has been converted to Stripes country, it is there’s, and not in some glorified egotistical rock star indulgence but in an actual desire to give the country something special, directly to the people.
But the film doesn’t just connect to Canada through the ordinary people. Maybe I’m underestimating the world recognition of The White Stripes but isn’t it a little bit odd for the mayor of Yellowknife chauffeuring the band around town? Whatever your opinion it’s a fascinating, if bizarre, act of Rock N Roll diplomacy with Jack, Meg and Mr. Mayor conversing about the town’s history and the bands bowling adventures (I kid you not). Even more amazing is the meeting between the Stripes and a group of Inuit elders who cryptically explain to Jack the significance of the raven. They then exchange songs with Jack giving a song from ’way down south’ seeing as they are ‘way up North’, a lovely version of Lord Send Me An Angel. While the nature of the meeting might distract you from the actual performance, it’s truly fantastic because you realise he is really trying to impress them, and he seems to succeed. In exchange they give him an accordion sea chantey (I kind of got culturally lost here) accompanied by some pretty awesome Inuit square dancing. Maybe this is how diplomatic relations between the US and Canada should be conducted?
But while their love letter to Canada is the setting for the film, the heart of the film is the relationship between Jack and Meg themselves. As much as we go on about personal lives not meaning anything to us, we were all dying to see a fly on the wall view of the two and we get what we wanted but the mystique is preserved. The dynamic is predominantly playful and it’s pretty clear how the two got away with the brother/sister thing. At one point Jack jokingly yells at Meg for not talking quietly, while in another he digs is own grave when, while humorously getting Meg to explain he does not purposely steal the limelight in interviews, he inadvertently talks over the top of her. But at the end of the day the bond between the two of them is intangible, they seem to inhabit each other, which may account for their near telepathic communication on stage. The same way we could only watch in on The Beatles in Let It Be as their Liverpudlian humour went over our heads, we can only try and understand the connection between these two people. The only time we get close is the emotional final moment where as Jack’s performance of White Moon brings Meg to tears he simply holds her and comforts her. Know words for the cameras. Just the two of them together.
If Canada is the setting and Jack and Meg are the drama then the action is the concerts. If you thought The White Stripes could no longer surprise you as a live band you were fucking wrong. These performances will make you fall in love with the band all over again because they are truly amazing. In Black Math Jack immediately renders Blackpool obsolete as he stops and starts, shrieks and furiously runs his fingers over the fret board. The drama of Jolene, which I never felt I needed to hear again, gets turned up to 11 as Jack agonizes each syllable, painfully spitting out each word. I’m Slowly Turning Into You is rewritten on stage transformed from a poppy sing along into a Jazzy rhythm, slowly building from the haunted whisper of the title to startling screams by the end. Probably the true testament to the films brilliance is that Seven Nation Army is actually exciting again. As the crowd chant along to that ever-so-familiar riff you can hear Jack tying the ribbon on the bands first ten years.
There’s no other way to put it, if you are reading this blog you MUST see this film if you can. The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs will completely disappear from your conscious and two words and three colours will sum up your entire life at that moment.