Emmett Malloy proffers a beguiling glimpse into the machinations of the ever-enigmatic, blues-inflected figureheads of the garage rock revival with Under Great White Northern Lights, a rock documentary that charts the White Stripes’ tour across Canada in the summer of 2007. Stopping in every territorial province and finishing with a tenth anniversary show in Nova Scotia, Jack and Meg White lay bare their persevering belief in the unfussy rusticity and spontaneous enchantment music can hold, presenting an assortment of unarranged concerts in improvised locations. Little to no prior notice is given for the gigs, staged in as unorthodox settings as bowling alleys, fishing boats, flour mills, public buses and, on one occasion, during a meeting of Inuit elders. What the duo evidently seek to demonstrate is the intimacy and magic that can be derived from a moment of music; a ‘one note show’ that lasts no more than a few seconds, guest vocals from a young boy on ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ during an impromptu set, a full-stage concert accompanied by bagpipes, fiddlers and tartan regalia.
The documentary is as heavily stylised as the band’s own image. Live performances and off-stage footage are presented as a striking series of shots, from the grainy black and white of film noir to highly saturated red film tints, to the Super 8 aesthetics of mumblecore. Yet such visually arresting and pointed composition is contrasted with the candid and uncontrived nature of both the interviews (conducted in a log cabin, Jack and Meg in the foreground, a suited interviewer lying hands clasped on a bed in the background) and the band’s live performances. Jack White’s stage presence is magnetic; his voice evokes bloodcurdling angst and anguish in every note as drenched in sweat and distortion he tears ferociously through songs. Jack acknowledges that because of their meticulously manufactured image, critics have dismissed their songs as being equally contrived and one-dimensional; he explains the dichotomy between the band’s premeditated aesthetic and their raw, instinctive musicality by quoting journalist Chuck Klosterman, who once wrote that the White Stripes were ‘simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world’.
Jack White is presented as unequivocally passionate; an artist constantly striving for perfection, never complacent. Small acts as self-flagellation- leaving his spare picks at the back of the stage rather than taping them to his microphone stand, using ancient guitars that, more often than not are out of tune, leaving just enough space between his microphone stand and piano that he has to run if he want to make a seamless segue- serve as self-imposed incentives to perform without compromise and press creativity. His refusal to use a setlist instils a sense of the innate authority of the songs and the endlessly exciting notion that every gig is a uniquely crafted special occasion, a musical adventure that could go anywhere.
Aside from the searing live performances, the most arresting element of Under Great White Northern Lights is the poignant portrayal of the relationship between Jack and his self-proclaimed ‘big sister’ Meg. The latter, throughout the film, remains largely impenetrable, her input in interviews few and far between, her dialogue so soft and muted by shyness that it requires subtitles to be understood. Yet the couple’s onstage chemistry is potent, each one harnessing the other’s ability, intuitively interpreting each action. During the film, the most can be taken from the touching, unspoken actions shared between the ex-husband and wife. At the end of every show Jack takes Meg’s hand to gently guide her to the front of the stage and take her bow, they walk arm in arm along the beach, they sit in companionable and comfortable silence. One of the most touching moments comes at the very end of the film when, seated side by side at a piano, Jack delivers a heartfelt rendition of ‘Little Ghost’ as Meg rests her head on his shoulder, large tears rolling down her cheeks. It is an instance that captures the essence of the entire documentary; unexplained but illuminating, Under Great White Northern Lights provides a beautifully shot, enigmatic insight into an equally elusive band.