In any other lifetime, Jack White would have been a woodblock printer, a pirate, a missionary, a wheelwright, a buckskin-clad frontiersman, a statesman, a Union soldier, a sharecropping bluesman, a cigar-chomping newsman, an oil baron, an electrical engineer or one of the Wright Brothers. He would have worked very hard for a very long time with very little recognition, would have died for duty and country, would have bested foes with guile and determination, and he would have done all of it simply because that’s what you were supposed to.
Instead, he’s trapped in this lousy century, where he’s forced to toil away as one of the most enigmatic, misunderstood musicians on the planet. He spends an exorbitant amount of time on an extraordinary number of projects, usually working within a preconceived set of conditions, for reasons that are usually only apparent to him. He suffers the slings and arrows of his critics not because he wants to, but because he has to. It’s just part of the job. After all, a wheelwright wouldn’t complain, would he?
And all of this isn’t meant to serve as some pseudo-psychological profile on White. Rather, it’s about all I could think of after watching the [artist id="610526"]White Stripes[/artist]‘ “Under Great White Northern Lights,” a documentary that is very much about doing things the hard way. Filmed in 2007, it follows the Stripes on their ultra-ambitious Canadian tour, on which they decided to play at least one show in every province and territory — 13 in all — mostly because, as White puts it, “Canada is the only country that’s ever turned us away.”
This is no easy task: Canada is the world’s second-largest country (thanks, Wikipedia!), and getting to places like Yellowknife and Iqaluit is about as difficult as you’d imagine. And not content to simply play straightforward, standing-room-only shows in each city, White also decided that the Stripes would be playing “secret” shows during the day, in places like a bowling alley in Saskatoon, a pool hall in Halifax and aboard a boat in Charlottetown (that’s on Prince Edward Island, FYI). Along for the ride is the band’s shamanic road crew, who White maintains must always be dressed in matching black suits, red ties and bowler hats. And a film crew, that, based on a few glimpses of cameramen in the background of shots, was also required to adhere to the same dress code.
In keeping with Stripes mythology, everything involved in the film also incorporates the band’s famous three-color palette (red, white and, the latest addition, black), which means red-and-white propeller planes, amplifiers, guitars, drums and outfits, even during travel days. And, in perhaps the most striking example, the film itself, which is presented almost exclusively — something like 98 percent — in those three colors. Backstage moments are appropriately black and white, onstage performances are a fiery red. You don’t notice it, but it’s there. Because it has to be.
And what is most amazing is that White didn’t have to do any of this. Something inside him drives him to operate this way; makes him don a traditional tartan kilt for a ceremony in Halifax (and then wear it onstage that night), meet with Inuit elders in Iqaluit to get their blessing before a show or grind out songs on wholly inadequate — and, in some cases, downright antiquated — instruments. He sums it up best in one of the most compelling “Lights” scenes: an interview segment in which he attempts to explain himself and his ethos.
“When I used to work as an upholsterer, it wasn’t always fun. … Sometimes, it was just work, and you do it because you’re supposed to. You force yourself to work,” he sighed. “I like to do things that make it really hard on myself. … I’m constantly fighting all these tiny little things, because all of those little things create tension.”
And that tension gives birth to great things. Witness the Stripes’ entire discography, a workmanlike collection of songs built around two people and something like three instruments (occasionally, there’s a piano). Or their rise to fame, which was anything but meteoric, built over the course of a decade’s worth of blisters and bruises. Or this film, which most certainly ranks as one of the best rock docs in recent memory, if not of all time. The onstage moments are incendiary — standouts include a soulful and surging take on “Jolene” in Iqaluit and an undying version of “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” taken from their Yellowknife performance — and the backstage stuff is gripping, particularly the last scene, filmed after their 10th anniversary show in Nova Scotia. While I don’t want to give too much away, it manages to raise goose bumps, a masterful presentation of unspoken emotions and weighty subtext.
But mostly, “Lights” serves as testament to the Charles Kane-ian will of Jack White himself (no wonder “Citizen Kane” is one of his favorites) and the greatness that determination can create in its wake. It’s a love letter to his unwavering dedication to doing things the hard way and his uncompromising, Old World work ethic. In fact, the only time he complains about anything during the entire film is when he learns he’s scheduled to do an interview with The Associated Press, and even then, he still ends up doing it. Because he has to. It’s pathological. Psychological. But it is very much him. After all, a wheelwright wouldn’t complain, would he?
Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.