Jack White is a busy guy. Playing in three successful bands (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather), taking on small roles in feature films, and running a production company in Tennessee doesn’t seem to be enough. White claims he likes to make things difficult for himself, so within a single year he signed on for two documentary films; It Might Get Loud was released at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, and Emmett Malloy’s The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights – filmed during the band’s tour across Canada in 2007 – premiered there last year. The latter is being released on DVD on March 16.
Under Great White Northern Lights documents a tour that deserved to be recorded. The band set out to hit every province and territory in Canada – something most Canadian bands haven’t managed – and not just the big cities, either. The White Stripes not only wanted to play towns off the beaten path, but “venues” a big band like themselves wouldn’t normally play. What follows is the ultimate tour doc, mixing band interviews, concert footage, and footage of secret, intimate performances the duo put on for fans in the far reaches of the Canadian North.
Most of the film focusses on the Northern part of the tour, when the band was playing in Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit; these remote locations – far more than surprise shows in urban centres – are what make the tour so unique. Malloy skillfully captures the unique Northern Canadian moments, such as Jack and Meg playing for square-dancing Inuit elders in Nunavut, and leaving a late-night show with the sun still out.
Above all, this is a tour video. Unlike It Might Get Loud, which included an outsider’s exploration of Jack White as a musician, this is an insider’s depiction of one of the world’s biggest bands. The interviews are interesting but sparse, and the majority of the film is of the band putting on amazing shows. White Stripes fans will soak in the music and be inclined to clap after performances, but non-fans will feel out of place. While the music is great, the exchanges and encounters amusing, and the footage beautifully shot, Under Great White Northern Lights is for fans who wish they could have been on the bus Jack and Meg played on in Winnipeg, or the bowling alley they surprised in Saskatoon.
Emmett does explore the dynamics of the duo, but he raises more questions than answers. It’s always a treat to listen to the talented enigma that is Jack White speak about his work, but Meg speaks only occasionally in the film, and her quiet words are often subtitled. In a very funny scene, Jack tries to convince the interviewer that Meg is just quiet and it’s not because he speaks over her that she doesn’t talk in interviews. He says this while talking over her, drowning out whatever she wanted to say.
The film ends with an out-of-place scene, with Jack playing “Little Ghost” on piano next to Meg, bringing Meg to tears and Jack close. The scene is touching, but it’s a sharp divide from the rest of the film and leaves the audience unclear as to what the filmmaker is trying to say.
Under Great White Northern Lights is an amazing and entertaining tour documentary, but do not expect an investigative look at the White Stripes. The film upholds the illusion that Jack and Meg White are brother and sister instead of divorced, and as usual, it’s never clear when Mr. White is being sincere on camera, or just adding to the act that is the White Stripes But as the documentary shows, maybe the act is all that matters.