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The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

3 out of 4 stars


The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

  • Directed by Emmett Malloy
  • Starring Jack White and Meg White
  • Classification: NA

The wide-open secret is that Meg White and Jack White of the White Stripes are not the brother-and-sister act they are often advertised to be, but a divorced couple. Either that or they're blood relations who years ago elaborately pretended to make up a story about being siblings.

Sometimes the best way to keep a lid on mystery is to let everybody in on the secret. More double talk? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. A rock-tour documentary on the White Stripes is illuminative, yet keeps an element of mystery to an enigmatic and simple band.

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Looking at the press material for The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights, the well-toned account of the band's peculiar tour of all the provinces and territories of Canada in the summer of 2007, one sees a biography that states "Jack White formed the White Stripes with his big sister Meg in 1997…"

Early in the 89-minute film (to be released as a DVD and CD following its limited theatrical release), the singer, songwriter and guitarist Jack White talks about the misconceptions involving the Detroit-based duo, mentioning the band's colour schemes (red, white and black), the peppermint candy designs and the "brother and sister" thing.

"They think everything about the White Stripes is premeditated," he protested during a tour that coupled carefully orchestrated impromptu "side shows" with traditional ticketed concerts.

This man White, who divorced drummer Meg in 2000, also mentions a quote from the U.S. music writer Chuck Klosterman, who wrote that the White Stripes were "simultaneously the most fake band in the world and the most real band in the world." White likes that description, he says, and perhaps the director Emmett Malloy does too, because he zeroes in on the dichotomy.

And so, we see the raw-rock revivalists give quirky performances during the day - a sing-along on a Winnipeg bus, some ten-pin rock 'n' bowl in Saskatoon, and an electric version of Muddy Waters's Catfish Blues on a Charlottetown fishing boat - followed by intensely performed electric cave-stomping in traditional venues at night.

The bra-wearing half of the band doesn't have much to say, except "I'm shy." Meg speaks so quietly as to require subtitles (at least in the rough-cut version provided to media members), yet she's a crasher on the drum kit. Great big noise comes from just guitar, drums and vocals.

Her ex-husband Jack is an interesting cat, sure thing. He admits to some myth-building, but when it comes to what happens on stage and the studio, it's all real. "The music is completely in charge of us," he explains, believably.

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The film, shot in 16 mm (colour and black-and-white), can be compared to U2's Rattle and Hum from 1988. But where that road-doc saw an Irish band diving deep and wide-eyed into the arms of America, Under Great White Northern Lights shows the White Stripes discovering the True North with interested, but not fascinated, curiosity. Canada comes off as a very remote place.

The film closes with the look-alikes sitting at the piano, with Jack plinking and poignantly singing Little Ghost. The song is about apparitions, and seeing things that you alone can see. Meg cries, and the two hug each other. Why the tears? We don't need to know.

At the Royal Cinema in Toronto, Feb. 26 to March 4; Empire Theatre, Sydney, N.S., March 4; Mayfair, Ottawa, March 10 and 11; Metro Cinema, Edmonton, March 12 to 14; Broadway Theatre, Saskatoon, March 14.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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