The White Stripes have built a career on being the music world’s most compelling enigma. Jack and Meg White control every aspect of their image: They confine themselves by using the number three as a limit in both instrumentation and color scheme. On the other hand, they’re constantly pushing the creative envelope and consistently create some of rock‘n’roll’s most innovative sounds.
Under Great White Northern Lights
Screening Thursday at 9 p.m.
“Under Great White Northern Lights,” at its core, is an exploration of this balance between careful calculation and inordinate inventiveness.
In 2007, the Stripes set up a huge boundary for themselves by limiting an 18-day tour to performances solely within the borders of Canada. To add to this challenge, the band decided to play in every province and territory in the world’s second-largest country (geographically).
But Jack and Meg didn’t intend to restrict their shows to conventional concert halls, as they made spontaneous performances in town squares, youth centers, a bowling alley, a city bus and even a nursing home.
The film’s technical aspects — exceptional sound quality during concert scenes, crafty editing including a cut to “Citizen Kane” and alternating black-and-white and full-color images — all illustrate the talent of the filmmakers. But the scenery and breathtaking landscapes of Canada take center stage and become the most stunning element of “Northern Lights.” The band’s penchant for out-of-the-ordinary and out-of-the-way adventures certainly contributes to this spectacle.
There’s one flaw that prevents the film from joining the ranks of canonical rock documentaries. It lacks a narrative structure and is absent of any major conflict. Footage of Jack and Meg backstage and during car rides displays some particularly private moments and the film attempts to manufacture tension by overplaying the contrast between Jack’s dominating personality and Meg’s shyness. But even this seems forced. The reality, according to Jack, is that Meg is simply a quiet person and it’s her own decision to be silent while on camera and during interviews.
Another telling, if not comical, moment comes after a show when Meg claims she “wasn’t on top of (her) game” during an evening’s concert. It’s humorous because her drumming is so simplistic, practically anyone with a sense of rhythm could emulate her rudimentary style. But the fact that she makes this statement shows that, even though she might be musically subordinate to Jack, she still demands consistency in her playing. In a later scene, Jack confirms their commitment to high standards as he criticizes his vocal quality and suggests the tempo was dragging throughout a performance. This might seem inconsequential to the casual observer, but for Jack it’s paramount to strive for a sort of perfect chaos amid his completely improvised guitar solos and off-the-cuff setlist.
Although contrived at times, “Northern Lights” reinforces the unpredictability and unconventional nature of a band that is open to any new idea, so long as it fits within self-imposed parameters. Specific instances like a bagpipe procession and a horse-masked interview toe the line between staged and spontaneous, which perfectly illustrates the very essence of the band. Ultimately, the film provides a glimpse into the bizarre and cryptic world that Jack and Meg White have created and perpetuated for 10 remarkable years.