Under Review: ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’


Whether it inspires you or simply makes you jump for joy, music is an important part of most people’s lives. Personally, I enjoy musicians such as The Beatles, Johnny Thunders, The Ramones and, of course, Bob Dylan. But perhaps my favorite band is the two-person group known as The White Stripes. Usually consisting of Jack White on guitar and Meg White on drums, the band plays a combination of early blues, punk and country and the end result is pure musical brilliance.

As a musician, I can label Jack White as an influence. Granted, I can only play the beginning of “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica and the Nirvana song “Polly,” but if I ever quit writing reviews (I doubt it) and become a full-time rock n’ roll star, then I’ll proudly say The White Stripes contributed to my fame.

But that’s just childish banter, of course. I’ll never become as famous as Jack and Meg White. But hey, I’m not trying to be. But as a fan, it’s my duty to do my part in keeping them noticed and I’m doing just that by reviewing their new documentary.

Titled “Under Great White Northern Lights” and directed by Emmett Malloy, the film follows the band’s 2007 tour across Canada.

The documentary does contain most of the tunes available on the CD of the same name but it also features exclusive live performances not on the album. Most of these songs come from performances on the band’s side-shows whose venues include a bowling alley and a fishing boat.

These are a much appreciated addition to any serious White Stripes fan’s collection.

In the film, Jack White talks about how constricting yourself leaves more room for inspiration. This is one problem that the film does face — it’s much too formulaic even for a documentary. “Under Great White Northern Lights” continuously transitions from short side-shows to concerts — most of the time without explanation.

Another way the film constricts itself is stylistically. Once again, it follows a formula of using black-and-white or red-and-black (the band’s signature colors) recordings to then using regular footage. It looks good and makes sense during a good portion of the film’s short running time, but during the end it begins to feel forced and ultimately needless.

However, Jack and Meg White are great “characters” and this helps maintain the audience’s interest. It’s definitely entertaining to watch them (mostly Jack, though) talk about the critics, the fans and the years of the road, and the concert footage is great as well. There is one scene in particular, though, where Jack White momentarily loses his subtle charisma.

In this scene, he begins to rant about how whenever he drops a pick he must walk all the way to the other side of the stage to get another. This is understandable but White has no reason to complain because he purposely makes his life difficult. The man has millions of dollars and it’s just unbelievable that he can’t afford a pick-holder, plus he even admits that he “likes” making things difficult for himself. But contradicting himself, he continues ranting about how his guitars go out of tone easily, now once again, even my already poorly-tuned guitar — which is decorated with yellow nail polish and permanent marker — is of better quality than the guitars that Jack White uses, and I’m by no means a millionaire as he is and this shows something (also I got the guitar for a mere $60).

This one awkward scene won’t make me start hating White or stop me from being a fan of the band, but it’s the most memorable in the film, and though some fans such as myself are able to look past this blunder, others may start to detest Jack as a human being.

In the film, Jack White says his favorite thing that a musician has ever said to him is that “The White Stripes are simultaneously the fakest and realest band in the world.” The same can be said about their feature-length documentary. The pacing and stylistic choices do lose their appeal by the end, but “Under Great White Northern Lights” does offer a surprisingly human look at the lives of Jack and Meg White — for better or for worse.

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