It could have all gone so terribly awry. When it was first announced that the White Stripes were releasing a documentary chronicling their gallant tour of all 13 provinces and territories of Canada while promoting 2007’s Icky Thump, I grimaced. I feared Rattle & Hum type of ego-stroking and spotlight-holding. I feared that Jack White’s already famous quirkiness and tireless creative output (shown to some degree in Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud), would come across as outright megalomania and arrogance.
Thankfully, Under Great White Northern Lights (directed with awe and unflinching enthusiasm by Emmett Malloy) is arguably more Stop Making Sense (though not quite) than the ultra-serious young men portrayed during the never-ending Joshua Tree tour of America as they reached the first pinnacle of their popularity. Here, the famously private duo known as Jack and Meg are shown on-stage and off, in a bowling alley, on a boat, listening to Patsy Cline, respectfully communing with Inuit elders and eating uncooked caribou meat. All the while delighting and enchanting the “good people of the Yukon” and music fans across the near and far reaches of Canada with riptide rock ‘n’ roll on their way to performing a breathless 10-year anniversary concert at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.
It’s easy to get sentimental while watching Under Great White Northern Lights. The Icky Thump tour ended so abruptly amid reports of Meg’s acute anxiety issues that forced its cancellation. The sweetly beatific drummer hasn’t been seen much since, although Jack’s been all over and back. But since then, just speculation as to the future of the band who won hearts and critical praise on the heat of their simplistic, yet utterly gripping blues-punk explosion, and no firm updates.
Shot in the duo’s preferred tri-color scheme of red (color), black and white, Under Great White Northern Lights captures more of the personalities and adventures of Jack and Meg, over their acumen as a live band, although blistering performances of “Icky Thump,” “Let’s Shake Hands,” “When I Hear My Name,” “Black Math” and “Blue Orchid” are given their due. The most telling moments come at the beginning and the end. The very first section presents the band’s infamous one-note concert in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that left the epic crowd screaming, “One more note! One more note!” Just two months later, we’d all be screaming the same thing.
Within the film’s myriad interviews, Jack is perceptively defensive of the band’s image, and how they’ve been covered and analyzed in the press. His favorite bit was how a reviewer surmised that the “White Stripes are simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world.” He also addresses his own break-neck work ethic and adherence to limitations: preferring to make it hard on himself with cheap, plastic guitars (for example) because it’s better for creativity. Not into creative loafing, this man. “Constriction forces us to create,” he states. No doubt that the duo’s own past plays a part in the difficulty of the band, which makes for intoxicatingly intense performances; Jack and Meg are unfailingly and intimately in-tune with each other.
The final moments of Under Great White Northern Lights are clearly the most personal, and given how protective Jack and Meg are of their dynamic and why it works, nothing is more poignant than what silently passes between them as Jack lets loose a heartfelt rendition of Get Behind Me Satan’s “White Moon,” with Meg beside him on the piano bench. As the song unfolds, she begins to cry. Malloy gets his close up, but not an exploitive one. All anyone needs to know about their partnership is right there on the screen in the way Jack embraces her with pure warmth and love. Brother and sister. The end. Fade out. Nothing else to examine, and no tundra left to cross.
The truth doesn’t make a noise, it just makes you feel. –Carrie Alison