“Make as much noise as you want,” recommended The White Stripes: Under Great Northern Lights director Emmett Malloy, before the film's premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on Friday night. In practice, the audience didn't make much noise at all: we were, for the most part, stunned by this portrait of the last great epic American rock band, that somehow etched into the mystery of the White Stripes, without relieving it completely.
Shot mostly in the Stripes' red, white and black palette (one shot looks like black and white film, filtered red), Lights chronicles the band's unprecedented attempt to tour Canada, playing shows in every province. Some of these “shows” wouldn't count on the average tour roster: Jack and Meg played a bowling alley and a small private boat; they played Blind Willie McTell for Inuit elders and “The People on The Bus” on a Winnipeg city bus. And then at night, they'd rock the usual large theaters, and Malloy shows these “real” gigs as if they're all one long gig in progress. Rarely allowing a full song to play out, he montages highlights of a single night into one continuum of noise.
And tension, which Jack names as The White Stripes' product. It's an apt descriptor to help understand the tension between the two band members: it's not a romance, it's not a sibling rivalry, and it's definitely not the average working relationship for one of the biggest bands in the world. It's some vague, sticky halfway point between all three, as evidence by the film's final scene, in which Meg bursts into tears sitting next to Jack on a piano bench backstage while he plays “White Moon” — a song that, with it's references to ghosts of relationships past and Jack's obsession with Rita Hayworth, may obliquely nod to his former marriage to Meg and his current marriage to red-headed supermodel Karen Elson. It's intense, especially for a rock doc. But what does it all mean?
“This band's always been pretty mysterious, even for me,” Malloy said after the screening. “We show more than you're used to getting from them, but you're still left with lots of questions, and we were very conscious about keeping that mystery alive.” Pursuant to that, all he'll say for Meg's tears is that the scene was shot two hours after the after party for their 10th anniversary show. “It was the highs and lows of ten years coming out that night. They were good tears, that's for sure.” They're infectious tears, too–I couldn't hold back my own while watching the scene.
You, too , can cry your own good tears–as with several films playing at SXSW, Northern Lights is available for rental now on cable Video on Demand and a CD/DVD will be available for purchase on March 16.