Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Under Great White Northern Lights review

I became a White Stripes fan when I was in the tenth grade. They had just hit the scene with their first major-label single “Fell in Love with a Girl,” and it really caught my attention. The song was so different than anything I had heard up to that point, coupled with the awesome video, and 15-year-old Chris Slater was hooked. Their next single “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” proved that they had substance and weren’t just a one-hit wonder, and I was even more enthralled by this two-piece Detroit rock outfit.

The White Stripes are an odd band. When they initially hit the scene, Jack and Meg White were portrayed as a brother and sister who played music together. It has since been revealed that was not the case; they were actually married at one point. I don’t remember exactly where the interview took place - I’m thinking Rolling Stone - but Jack gave the reason for the deception as being that people would analyze the song lyrics too much if it were revealed that they were married and then divorced.

Fans of the group have not let the sibling/marriage thing stand in the way of enjoying their music, as the White Stripes have consistently produced some of the best music of the last decade. Their last four albums, “White Blood Cells,” “Elephant,” “Get Behind Me Satan,” and “Icky Thump” have all been critically lauded and won Grammys.

[Click to Listen: "Fell in Love with a Girl" - "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" - "Seven Nation Army" - "Hardest Button to Button" - "Icky Thump"]

I first heard about the “Under Great White Northern Lights” dvd sometime in the summer of 2009. It seemed like an interesting concept - the band had never toured Canada, so they decided to do an extensive tour and make a documentary out of it. I read a few pieces about it and, honestly, largely forgot about it shortly thereafter. I filed it into my “Cool, but not a priority” file in my head, which is overloaded with so much random crap.

It wasn’t until early 2010 that I thought about “Under Great White Northern Lights” again. I was checking my twitter account at work, when I came across a tweet from a teenage girl from London. I honestly can’t tell you how I first stumbled across her profile, but I have been following Georgia, aka @spirtwasteland, for about a year now. She had just started her own blog and her first entry was a review of the White Stripes dvd. She really enjoyed it and her words piqued my interest in the disk.

I eventually bought it and, after letting it set in my room for a few weeks, watched it. I’ll tell you what I liked about it, what I didn’t like, and I’ll also discuss my thoughts on the ending [SPOILER ALERT].

The thing I liked the most about this dvd was the concert footage. Several full-length songs are played from their various concerts around the Canadian provinces. The White Stripes have a very good live show - energetic, and full of spirit. You can tell that they enjoy playing their music in front of a crowd. Some notable songs from the set include “Icky Thump,” “Blue Orchid,” “Little Ghost,” a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and a blues-y version of “Fell in Love with a Girl.”

One of the more unique things the band did was play a series of what they referred to as “side shows.” They would have their standard concert at night, but during the day they would pick a random spot and play an impromptu concert. They played acoustic shows on a bus and in a bar. They played electric shows anywhere ranging from a classroom, to a boat, to a bowling alley. That was really unique and you could see that they had a lot of fun with these shows. There weren’t as many people in the crowds, so they encouraged audience participation and seemed to really be relaxed.

If you’re not a huge fan of the White Stripes, you might not realize how eclectic their music is. “Under Great White Northern Lights” helps showcase that, as they play several different types of songs. They can rock out. They can play trippy keyboard segments. They can disrupt your senses with distortion. And, then they can pull out an acoustic guitar and play a mellow, folk song. It’s not fair to pigeonhole the White Stripes as having one certain sound. They’re one of the most diverse bands out there today.

With that said, though, there were a few issues I had with this dvd.

If you’re new to the White Stripes and are watching this hoping to get some insight into the history of the group or an understanding of Jack and Meg’s relationship, you’re watching the wrong dvd. In the interview that plays throughout the disk, Jack brings up the brother/sister aspect once. He doesn’t discuss the marriage aspect or really any details about that whole situation. Jack discusses a lot about how he writes songs and what goes into his live shows, which is pretty cool. But, if you’re looking for “the dirt” regarding the band, you’re not going to find it here.

At one point during the interview, Jack mentions that the favorite thing he’s ever had written about the band was that they are simultaneously the fakest and most real band around. He was talking about how they have their fake presentation - the red outfits, the back story, etc… and the real aspect was how good they are as musicians. As I mentioned, I enjoy the musical performances a lot. I am not a huge fan of how hard they tried to be “weird” or “different” on the dvd. During the interview with Jack and Meg, there is a guy laying on a bed behind them. He’s acting like he’s asleep. I thought that was weird, but dismissed it. Then, it turns out the guy on the bed, behind them, is actually the guy interviewing them!

That aspect of the dvd just came off as too forced, too contrived. It hurt the presentation a little bit, in my eyes.

One of the most-talked about parts of the dvd is the ending. Jack and Meg are sitting at a piano. Jack is playing “White Moon.” Near the end of the song, Meg starts crying a little bit. Then, she starts crying a lot. In a touching moment, after Jack finishes the song he looks at Meg for a second before putting his arm around her. They hug each other, and “Under Great White Northern Lights” ends with the two embracing.

Perhaps the reason this scene is so emotional is because there isn’t a lot of contact between the two during the entire dvd. Sure, they talk to each other, and there’s a connection between them on the stage. But, if you knew nothing about them and watched this dvd, you would have no idea that they used to be married. The scene hits you so hard because there’s nothing building up to it. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s a pretty deep song. It obviously affected Meg in some way. Did Jack write it about her? About them? The ending leaves it open.

Despite the awkwardness of the interview scene, this is a solid dvd. Great music scenes. Interesting insight into what makes their music tick. Emotional ending. Bottom line, if you like the White Stripes, buy this dvd. If you’re intrigued by the White Stripes, buy this dvd. If you don’t like the White Stripes, well, I guess you’ll need to find something else to watch.


  1. I feel so famous now! Hahaha! This is a really good review and I'm glad I inspired you to actually getting round to watch it! I think their somewhat pretension as to trying to be different is probably down to the questions asked more than what they're trying to portray themselves as- it'd be hard to answer stuff like that without coming across as trying too hard. But thanks and good job :) I agree with everything else you said. Very true about that last scene being emotional because of the lack of contact between them throughout. Although they do stroll arm in arm at one stage with the Nova Scotian guard or whatever they were (I'm english, I have no idea lol). xxx

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks for making me get around to finally watching it :)