While no two documentaries are ever quite alike, very few ever become something more than just a piece of filmed non-fiction. However, occasionally, a documentary hits the scene with such vitality, such breathtaking energy, that it turns from a simple non-fiction essay into an emotionally devastating piece of pure blooded cinema.
That’s what happened a handful of years ago when the stunning documentary The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights hit the film world to sadly little applause and respect. From director Emmett Malloy, this 2010 masterpiece of a music documentary follows the legendary Detroit punk band as they make their way across Canada in 2007. Ostensibly displaying the last moments of one of the modern era’s most iconic bands, this unsung gem of a documentary is not only a thrilling and emotionally resonant look at two star crossed, sonic lovers playing their final moments together but also a genuinely awe-inspiring time capsule of a group that will forever be seen as one of this generation’s most influential musical duos.
That said, first and foremost, this film is as aesthetically singular a documentary as we’ve seen in years. Possibly best known for either his work as co-director of the dreadful 2001 comedy Out Cold or for the various music documentaries he’s taken control of, Malloy crafts a documentary unlike any you’re bound to see. Aesthetically as daring as the band he shot truly was, the film employs various stylistic choices, be it grainy handheld footage, contrast heavy performance footage or the occasional, Fellini-esque black and white set piece, Malloy’s film is truly one of a kind. However, above all else, it’s the way that it portrays the performance pieces that may be the film’s strongest attribute.
Whereas most performance documentaries shine a light on the reaction of the crowd and the musician’s fans, Malloy turns his camera decidedly inwards. As intimate as a tour-long documentary could ever imagine being, the concert footage is just as pensive and introspective as any of the truly unforgettable footage of just Jack and Meg White by themselves.
And something must be said for the film’s wallop of an ending. Coming after roughly 90 or so minutes of seeing these two musical soul mates perform together, getting lost, as we do, in each other’s music, Jack White takes to the piano for what may be one of the most emotionally heartbreaking and resonant scenes in any documentary so far this decade. Finally breaking away from the pure punk-rock energy that the band is so well known for, the two get lost in one another in an entirely different way. Basically the band’s final seconds, that realization washing over Meg, visibly, as well as the viewer. With tears streaming down Meg’s face, and the band very much still broken up, the film proves itself as something that so brilliantly invests the viewer into not only this band’s breathless brand of energy-filled rock, but their actual, palpable, vital relationship.
Toss in various segments of the band doing some much talked about free concerts ranging from a city bus in Winnipeg to their one note show that is easily one of the film’s greatest singular moments, this masterpiece of non-fiction cinema is a testament to what the form and the medium can truly do. Unflinching and Bergman-esque in its introspection, Malloy’s picture is an absolutely Masters class in how to turn a documentary into something closer resembling an actual character study than just a concert film. Giving genuine human insight into the lives of two long time friends as their musical relationship nears its climax, the film is almost Cassavetes-esque in its focus on watching, as if it were literally transfixed, as two people mine what is left of their relationship for all it is worth.
Relatively underseen come its initial release, this film is a perfect fit for a Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray release. Currently available in just about every way, ranging from a relatively bare bones DVD release to a monstrous box set, there are a handful of interesting supplements that could be simply ported over to a new release. I’m particularly fond of Under Nova Scotian Lights, a 135 minute long documentary looking at the band’s 10th anniversary show held in Nova Scotia, also helmed by Malloy. I myself have not seen that yet, and would absolutely love to pair the two pictures up. Toss in a few interviews with either band member and a person who influenced them (think of the Lena Dunham/Nora Ephron interview on the Tiny Furniture release, and you could have a release that is as densely packed and truly rewarding as you’re bound to see hit store shelves.
Oh, and it should also, again, be mentioned that the film itself is an absolute masterpiece, lest we all forget.