Under Great White Northern Lights

On the heels of last week’s rock doc opener, Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s A Band Called Death, rock n’ roll documentaries have been understandably on our collective brain. (Landon explored the genre and some of its recent attempts to “fix” rock music earlier this week.) Though A Band Called Death tells a great story about America’s first (and forgotten) punk band, I found it to be emotionally lacking (even with tons of appropriate emotion to mine for the production, including the death of its most influential member), which got me thinking about other rock docs that I found truly emotionally satisfying. There was only one that immediately came to mind, even though I had almost forgotten about its very existence.

While A Band Called Death is an impressively comprehensive documentary about the band and the brothers, its desire to meticulously track the timeline of the story holds it back from having a tremendous emotional punch. It’s the sort of problem that can be common in documentary films (particularly in first-time outings, like A Band Called Death is) – an adherence to telling all the pertinent bits of a true story often rob it of the kind of emotional value that’s easier to build into a fictitious narrative film. Basically, some documentaries don’t take risks in their storytelling, instead sticking to linear expression, which is rarely that interesting or dramatic. It’s why documentary films that do take risks in their storytelling are so captivating and so acclaimed (think The Imposter or The Arbor, two unique documentaries of recent vintage that took major storytelling risks that paid off big).

Emmett Malloy’s Under Great White Northern Lights doesn’t necessarily take major storytelling risks (though it does successfully weave together sections of “present” narrative and past reflections in a very satisfying way), but it takes the kind of emotional risks that A Band Called Death doesn’t. Instead of documenting past emotional events in the personal and professional lives of Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes, Under Great White Northern Lights puts its audience inside of them. The results are almost overly emotional, even for viewers. I cried during this film, and it’s because I watched Meg White cry, and cry in a new context (though she was surely remembering past wounds, these tears were fresh). It was original emotion, it was not the memory of emotion, and it made Under Great White Northern Lights instantly essential.

Malloy knows from rock documentary filmmaking, having made a number of major rock videos for acts like Metallica and Blink 182, directed a fair bit of concert film material with his brother Brendan, and recently directing the travelogue/concert film Big Easy Express. But Under Great White Northern Lights is his most emotional and effecting outing yet, and all of that has to do with his ability (and his subjects’ willingness) to be fully present while things are happening, not just documenting things that did happen.

Filmed during the White Stripes’ 2007 Canada tour, the perimeters of the Stripes’ tour already set it apart as a rock doc. It’s a concert film, but it’s not one of those massive arena, produced-to-death concert films – Jack and Meg played all kinds of offbeat venues (in every one of the country’s provinces) in addition to the big joints, from parks to bus stops to cafes to bowling alleys. It was, by its very design, a very intimate film. It also unexpectedly documented the pair’s final tour (they later cancelled a number of dates on the back-end of the tour, effectively making the Canadian tour their unplanned final outing) before breaking up, partially due to the introverted Meg’s intense anxiety.

It’s that knowledge that the White Stripes are no more that makes the final scene of the film so damn wonderful. As the film starts to close out, Jack sits down at a piano to play “White Moon” for Meg, who begins to cry as the song goes on. It’s the first time we’ve really seen Meg let down her guard, and it’s a wholly organic and wrenching occurrence. It’s also original and authentic, a moment of something actually real happening in a film that set out to document just such a thing.

Come on, give it a watch:

Under Great White Northern Lights is available on Amazon and iTunes.


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