What is advertised — in both the trailers and the first ten minutes of the film itself — as a clash of the titans turns out to provide only a few minutes of footage in what turns out to be a traditional documentary about three subjects treated very separately.
The concept is fantastic: take three practitioners of the electric guitar from different generations and have them interview each other. The benefits of this approach are immediately obvious: the questions would be just as interesting as the answers, instead of having the subjects respond to generic questions from an earnest but jejune interviewer or anecdote-prompter.
Unfortunately, director David Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) decided to cut out most of the interaction between the guitarists and replace it instead with independent threads on each subject. Jimmy Page shows the most contempt for his off-screen interlocutor’s banal questions, reminding us how much more interesting the proceedings would have been if the director had the guts to roll tape of the actual meeting between the professionals and trust the audience to follow along.
Loosely structured into thematic segments, the transitions between guitarists’ individual stories are badly chosen, often cutting away just when something was becoming interesting. Still, the raw material is often compelling enough to make the production feel worth it, such as Edge going through a box of old demos and listening to them for the first time since he made them, while the viewer is left to contemplate: is it possible that those now iconic riffs could ever have exist in alternative forms? I felt a little bit like Charles Lamb when he saw a manuscript of Milton’s early poems in the poet’s own hand:
I had thought of the ‘Lycidas’ as a full-grown beauty — as springing up with all its parts absolute — till, in an evil hour, I was shown the original copy of it, together with the other minor poems of the author, in the library of Trinity, kept like some treasure to be proud of. I wish they had thrown them in the Cam, or sent them after the latter Cantos of Spenser, into the Irish Channel!
How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise, and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent! I will never go into the workshop of any great artist again.
Another strength of the documentary is the generosity of recorded performances, both audio and video, of the musicians most influential to the three guitarists. Their choices are as idiosyncratic as could be hoped, and as an eclectic anthology of blues and early rock n roll the film is enjoyable enough.