The White Stripes Documentary Under the Great White Northern Lights Is Very, Very Good


Emmett Malloy’s White Stripes documentary, Under the Great White Northern Lights, premiered this past weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, where Jack White pulled a Kanye. Wider release dates are still unannounced, but we had a chance to screen the film last week in New York.

There always seems to be little bit of Bob Dylan lurking behind every Jack White endeavor. This one isn’t any exception. A rock-and-roll love letter to D.A. Pennebaker, Canada, pre-Internet music culture, and, above all, the White Stripes, director Emmett Malloy’s Under the Great White Northern Lights is like a modernized version of Don’t Look Back set in one of William T. Vollman’s Seven Dreams. (The Rifles, probably.) You should see it. It’s beautifully shot, the audio sounds phenomenal, and, at times, the film even manages to be downright inspiring. It helps, of course, that Malloy picked one of the strangest rock tours of the last decade to document.

In the summer of 2007, the White Stripes set out on a massive Canadian trip which ultimately saw them play venues in every territorial province, from the Yukon to Nunavut. During the days, the band played impromptu “secret shows” in local pool halls, bowling alleys, public parks, flour mills, fishing vessels, classrooms, grocery stores, transit buses, and elder meetings. Malloy got all of them on film.

The challenge, as you watch, is to decide whether Jack and Meg are absurdly out of context or just finally in their element. Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, has a population of just over 6,000 (dominantly Inuit and Christian), the highest murder rate of any capital city in Canada, and, due partly to the troubled assimilation of traditional Inuit life into modern Canadian culture, a teenage population so prone to suicide and alcoholism that one study describes it as a “sort of cultural norm.” Add to this the Whites Stripes heavy investment in the blues–a genre of music confected out of struggle, innovated by similarly oppressed people under similarly oppressive conditions–and you have an unexpectedly perfect setting for a rock and roll show.

I interviewed the band the day they arrived in the city. Iqaluit, which never gets dark that time of year, looks like an abandoned stockyard lain out on top of a glacier. Jack and Meg had spent their morning at a meeting of Inuit elders: eating raw caribou, playing Blind Willie McTell covers, and watching old women square dance to local accordion music. Later, the band played the only concert venue available: a decommissioned hockey rink limited to a capacity of 500 because it was sinking so rapidly into the earth. No surprise, then, to watch their crowd treat the concert as a genuine circus-come-to-town novelty. Isolated from a whole lot of cultural noise, Malloy captures the White Stripes less as a rock band and more like a traveling medicine show–something closer to Jack White’s conception of what a performer should be than he could ever fully embody in the wake of 10-million other leisure options.

In other words, the subplot of this movie (if not Meg’s quietly burgeoning depression) is the band’s attempt to outrun accelerated culture–to reclaim, in these makeshift venues and former tent cities, the feelings of “constriction” and “limitation” (White’s words) which have always fueled White’s music. Not so easy, it turns out. You can continually feel the modernized world pressing in on the band’s experience –and not just because they have a camera crew following them. The documentary’s opening scene, which looks like Pennebaker shot it himself, begins with a crowd of teenagers frantically chasing the location of the band’s next secret show as the crew keeps changing that location from inside a nearby van. Later, the Associated Press manages to track the “siblings” down in Iqaluit. By the time the band reaches its 10th anniversary concert in Nova Scotia, die-hard web prowlers have gotten so wise that the Whites have to announce their last surprise gig only minutes before it takes place. Jack and Meg play one note, bow, and leave. You know the band isn’t in America when nobody seems upset.

If the film has a failing, it’s that Malloy overlooks some important social context–Iqaluit’s, for example– in his excitement to produce a tight-lensed portrait of what the White Stripes “mean.” The portrait, however, is a particularly intimate and admirable one, firstly because it captures the band’s essential paradox– Jack White’s ability to maintain (like Dylan) his mystery and distance as a performer while (unlike Dylan) being entirely candid about his artifices. Maybe Jack should see this as one of the few advantages of being an artist now: 21st Century life is so virtual and fragmented, breeds such a level of basic mistrust, that you can tell people the absolute truth and they still won’t believe it. Scary, but also pretty useful if all you really consider yourself to be at heart is a vaudevillian performer.

It’s possible that all we really encounter in films of this kind are directors documenting a band’s experience of being documented. Taking a cue from White, Malloy’s embracement of that artifice ultimately becomes this film’s major strength. There’s obvious trust shared between the band and the crew, and this manifests itself not only in some of the best-looking and sounding live concert footage in recent memory, but also some of the most candid moments between Jack and Meg we’re ever likely to encounter again. See, for example, the film’s strange and stirring climactic scene, which leaves one wondering: What effect did this whole process have on Jack’s “sister”?

Under the Blackpool Lights, the only other film the White Stripes have released, is a straightforward, if stylishly old-fashioned piece of concert footage capturing a 2004 show at the Empress Ballroom in England. At one point, Jack asks the audience whether the venue is the same one the Beatles used to visit. The response is mixed. “I’m in the right place at the wrong time?” White asks. Yes, the crowd says. White laughs. “That’s how I feel every day.” See Under the Great White Northern Lights and you’ll understand what he means.