Photo of Jack and Meg White courtesy of FilmsWeLike.
Jack White has always liked a challenge. His ambition manifests in the sheer volume of projects on which he simultaneously works—since he and Meg White disbanded from The White Stripes less than three years ago, he’s formed, produced, and fronted two separate supergroups and co-starred in a documentary film about the guitar, all while raising two young children on the side. So a thunderous tour—which now has greater significance since it turned out to be their last for an indefinite period of time—of every province and territory of the world’s second-largest country seems only fitting.
Emmett Malloy, whose name is currently most droppable for his work on the latest cameo-laden Vampire Weekend video and who has previously chronicled the likes of Jack Johnson, The Foo Fighters, and Metallica, was called on by The White Stripes—having directed a few of their videos in the past—to tag along and document the tour. The final film, Under Great White Northern Lights, premiered last September at TIFF, and is making its way back to Canada (it’s only played otherwise in Denmark) this Friday for a week-long run at The Royal.
Shot mostly in black and white, the film’s visual form is a homage to its characters’ costumes. It follows the band backstage, like any rock documentary, at the big shows, the crowd’s chant omnipresent in the background, and then sits down to shed light on the group’s non-performance personas. But many of the film’s standout scenes portray something unique: the mass hysteria surrounding the guerrilla-style, spontaneous daytime shows (for which word spread within minutes), the majority of locations being undecided upon until touching base in town. In the case of their Toronto appearance at a YMCA, their destination was determined by a simple web-search of the words “Toronto” and “fun.”
“With touring, as a band you generally just pull into a town, go to the hotel, wake up, go to the venue, play the show and then you’re gone,” Malloy told us by phone earlier this week. “I think in this tour.. we got out there and really dove into the towns and the places and the people that were there, and I think that’s why this film has a few layers to it—it’s not just stuck in a venue.”
The day shows were done on The White Stripes’ original gear—a tribute to their ten years together, marked to the day on this tour. The night shows, by contrast, were staged with maple leaf flag–emblazoned amps, blow-your-brains-out loud electrics, and sets that look intentionally patriotic, dripping in bold red and stark white. The night of their anniversary (as a musical duo, not a couple) was a two-and-a-half hour show so high-energy, so powerful, that Malloy “thought they were going to pass out.” It was after the guitars were unplugged, however, in one of the film’s most striking moments, that Jack and Meg sat down to reflect on the decade past and one to come over a simple, acoustic version of their piano ballad White Moon. It’s perhaps the most lucid visual cue we get from Meg throughout the film, and we won’t spoil it—but what is clear is Meg’s character, one that’s perhaps been obscured by some stigma that she’s not the greatest drummer, or maybe just her partnership with a very talkative frontman. Yes, we can’t help talk about Jack, but what clearly, quietly, stands out in this film is Meg.
“I remember the film’s first cut feeling very Jack-heavy. But as I started to dig further and further for what this film should say and how this film should feel, more and more Meg stuff kept coming to the front,” he said. “Meg’s an introverted person, but only because she’s in a very extroverted world. At this point with the band, she was obviously experiencing some things that I don’t even know about. You just can tell—it’s all coming out of her eyes.”
And that’s the thing about The Stripes. They’re enigmatic, mysterious—in their relationship with each other, with the audience, with their calculated colours and act. They tell you everything and nothing at same time. In the film, Jack mentions a review that names them the most fake and the most real band in the world, saying it’s a fair description. Malloy agrees, and it shows. “That’s what I like about the band, that’s what I like about this film, is that we expose probably more than you ever knew about the White Stripes, but yet, really nothing at all.”
Under Great White Northern Lights plays a week-long run at The Royal beginning Friday night. Full showtimes are listed on the film’s website