Under Great White Northern Lights

January 01, 1970

(Third Man/Warner Bros.; 92 mins)






“We never used to be able to get across the border ever,”
admits Jack White about a quarter of the way through Under Great White Northern Lights (Third Man/Warner Bros.), a spectacular,
intimate documentary (and companion live album) of the White Stripes’ 2007 tour
through every province and territory of our northern continental neighbors in
support of the Detroit duo’s last studio album, Icky Thump. “Out of all the countries we’ve been to, Canada is the
only place I have to pay a fee to get into. It was the only country we’ve ever
been turned away from. It’s hilarious, too, because we used to live right
across the street.”


Given that revelation, the gorgeously shot Under The Great White Northern Lights seems
to be a fitting victory lap for Jack and Meg White, which finds the faux
brother/sister duo from Detroit, with their crew and director Emmett Malloy in
tow, commemorating their decade-long run as a group by returning to their roots
(so to speak) of playing before a succession of crowds who never heard of the
White Stripes before, contrasting with explosive performances at sold-out
arenas thick with diehard fans who knew every word to every song. As Malloy and
his pair of 16mm film cameras stylishly shoot Jack and Meg with an ambience
that equally recalls elements of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back, U2’s Rattle
and Hum
, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery
and the earthier moments of Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, the twosome play in areas of the country
where no Canadian artist ever ventured, be it Rush, Neil Young or Anvil. And
whether they are instigating a singalong on a city bus of the age-old
children’s song “Wheels on the Bus”, playing a cover of Robert Petway’s
“Catfish Blues” on a fishing boat or delivering Blind Willie McTell’s “Lord
Send Me An Angel” during a touching song exchange with Inuit Tribal elders at a
Nova Scotia senior center (this takes place shortly before their 10-year
anniversary show at the legendary Savoy Theatre), at every turn Jack and Meg
play with the same spirit they demonstrated back when they were signed to Sympathy
for the Record Industry.


The film also proves to be a fine, fitting showcase of the
Stripes’ interpersonal dynamic, showcasing how Meg’s tortured, spaced-out calm
provides a perfectly hued counterbalance to Jack’s God-fearing alpha-dandy
narcissism. This is interwoven throughout the thread of live performances,
which include some pretty interesting alternate renditions of such Stripes gems
as “Little Ghost”, “Ball and Biscuit” and “Fell In Love With A Girl”, cumulating
in the touching closing scene that finds Meg crying on Jack’s shoulder while
sitting beside him at the piano as he sings “White Moon”, a lovely,
stark ballad from 2005’s Get Behind Me
– a moment that precedes Meg’s much-publicized breakdown that forced
the duo to cancel the North American leg of the tour. In a recent
of the song in the legendary music zine Crawdaddy!, writer Denise Sullivan theorizes that if you listen
closely enough to the words that Jack White is singing it unlocks the truth
behind the nature of his and Meg’s mysterious relationship with one another.


And if this really is what many theorize it to be – the last
word on The White Stripes-that final scene in Under The Great White Northern Lights makes for a fitting ellipsis
to the career of a band shrouded in innuendo, ambiguity and, above all, genius.


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