Sound: After releasing their sixth album Icky Thump back in 2007, the White Stripes ventured out to an area that had surprisingly been missed over the course of their touring career: the massive expanse of Canada. But in the midst of covering each province/territory, Jack and Meg White approached that tour with an unusual twist. Along with the traditional concerts, the duo would show up everywhere from a bus to a bowling alley to an Indian Legion Facility. Filmmaker Emmett Malloy was on hand to chronicle the experience for the documentary Under Great White Northern Lights, which not only provides a closer look at the Canadian tour, but it also sheds light on the idiosyncratic dynamic between Meg and Jack.
The 93-minute film includes clips from 19 songs highlighting the styles that the White Stripes have explored over the past decade, whether it is the blues (Let's Shake Hands, Apple Blossom, Catch Hell Blues) or forward-thinking rock (Blue Orchid, Icky Thump). While it's always interesting to catch a glimpse of Jack getting lost in the moment during a concert, Under Great White Northern Lights reveals a more personal side to the singer/guitarist's performance with tracks like Lord Send Me An Angel. That particular song is performed at an Inuit elders' home, and it's easily one of the most heartfelt scenes in the entire film. There is always slightly an element of Jack as the mysterious rocker, even during the interviews, but it's when he is surrounded by an appreciative Inuit audience that he becomes approachable and down-to-earth.
For all of us who have been intrigued by the Jack-Meg relationship, the picture becomes slightly clearer after viewing Under Great White Northern Lights. The topic of Meg's quietness is broached even the rumor that Jack won't let her talk in interviews. After seeing the film, it becomes pretty evident that Meg hates to talk at any given time. When she finally does, Malloy often uses subtitles to translate Meg's hushed conversation. Another buzz subject discussed is the importance of image within the White Stripes, and Jack's answer is candid and insightful although you can tell he's annoyed that some publications are so quick to paint his band into a corner.
The pinnacle of the film arrives as the band celebrates its 10th anniversary, and there is brief reflection on the evolution of its approach to music. The White Stripes are in Nova Scotia for their anniversary concert, and their slide-fueled rendition of Son House's Death Letter is a standout performance. Even so, it's in the final moments when the true heart and soul of the band quietly eases its way into the film. Jack takes a seat next to Meg and the piano, and he proceeds to serenade her with White Moon. In the final few seconds of the film, the true connection of Meg and Jack finally comes to light emotion finally pours through the White Stripes workhorse mentality. // 10
Content: For White Stripes fans, a behind-the-scenes look at the usually private Meg and Jack might be all that they require. That's a good thing, particularly given that the copy we received did not include any extras. There is a nice balance between musical content, interviews, and general documentary footage during the film, making for an engaging piece. Yes, it would have been nice to hear Meg talk a tad more, but again, that doesn't seem to be her favorite activity. // 7
Production Quality: Filmed primarily with a few 16mm cameras, the overall look of Under Great White Northern Lights reflects the stark surroundings that the band encountered during their tour of Canada. If you want to take that idea even further, that black-and-white footage keeps in line with the White Stripes' limited color scheme. The editing was completed skillfully, with a wide variety of performances intertwined into the storytelling. // 9
Overall Impression: The White Stripes will always be somewhat of an enigma in the rock world, but Under Great White Northern Lights finally offers a glimpse of the real man and woman behind the famous band. From the b-roll footage alone, you can see the absolute obsession that Jack White has for his music. And Meg? She's usually waiting off to the side during those moments of musical obsession, but Meg just sitting in a chair watching Jack speaks volumes in itself. As a complete documentary, the honest storytelling and compelling soundtrack make it a success. // 9