Emmett Malloy’s The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights is at once a glorious concert film and a maddening behind the scenes portrait of two artists who seem to not want to be portrayed. I have no idea what Malloy’s relationship is with Jack and Meg White, the splendid not brother and sister duo who are the White Stripes, but certainly it seems friendly – but the relationship certainly seems formal and distant from the evidence of the film. Certainly it did not seem like Malloy had a lot of unfettered access – there is not the fly on the wall quality you get in something like Madonna: Truth or Dare. That said, the concert footage is outstanding – any observer can get the sense of their appeal and quality, and obviously Stripes fans will be giddy.
The film covers a Canadian tour made by the Stripes in 2007. Jack White offers an oblique reference to why they could not cross the border previously, but for whatever reason, the band felt compelled to check out every province and territory and bring their act to every section of the nation. What compelled them is never explored – although it is pretty clear from the interviews we do see that they love playing music. In interviews, Jack White offers some of the usual musician cliches about doing it “for the fans” and referencing critics – while Meg is almost silent, to the point that the film uses subtitles when she talks. They present themselves as, if not outright socially awkward, they seem decidedly introverted – at least in their everyday personas. In the progression of the tour, they make a big deal of being off the beaten path and getting to see areas they never see. However, Malloy leaves out, except for one case, scenes where we see the Stripes uniquely dealing with going to the Yukon for instance. Logistically it had to be a nightmare – how did they feel about that? The picture of WHO Jack and Meg are is difficult to penetrate – they clearly keep a wall, like many performers do … this film does nothing to break that.
However, as mentioned before, there is still music to be played, both in the form of the concers itself and hit and run type of impromptu sets they staged in each of the places. The concert scenes are outstanding. As NQ puts it:
And then there are the concert scenes. These are fabulous. I really felt like I was right there with the band. On a few occasions, when they ended a song, I had to stop myself from clapping along with the audience. I saw nodding heads and tapping feet in my general vicinity. The Stripes are loud. Jack shreds on the guitar and once in awhile he makes his way to a keyboard. Meg seems much more comfortable behind the drumkit. The live version of 7 Nation Army they play towards the end of the movie is very powerful and Meg crushes the drums.
Malloy deftly mixes black and white, and bold color when the Stripes perform in their red. The tri-color theme they favor is sharply seen. This is a stark contrast to the quiet, almost small presence they supply off the stage. They are protective of their method. While Jack and Meg do have a deep shared connection, as demonstrated in the rather lovely final inteview scene – they are vigilant in protecting what that connection is. We do not really know what makes them tick or how they click with each other – and the movie does not seem curious. These sorts of nagging questiions hold the movie back from being a great concert doc. But the performance scenes are for real – and certainly good enough to make this a DVD idea – just fast forward through the other stuff.