Film Review — The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights

by Jason LeRoy on March 15, 2010

Following the release of their 2007 album, Icky Thump, Jack and Meg White prepared for two simultaneous landmarks in their storied career: their tenth anniversary as a band, and their first extensive promotional tour of Canada’s many provinces and territories. They invited acclaimed music video director Emmett Malloy to accompany them on this excursion, capturing every moment along the way. The ensuing hybrid of aww-shucks Canadian culture shocks and feverish self-aggrandizement comprises The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights.

“We wanted to play out of the way towns that don’t usually get shows,” Jack White says at the onset the film. “The shows are better, it’s better for the people, it’s a better experience, it’s way more unique, something interesting is going to happen… hopefully.”

This statement accurately predicts everything that will follow. Jack and Meg take their perennially stripped-down show all the way across Canada, “from the ocean to the permafrost,” as Jack says. They play lots of unexpected locations, ranging from a bowling alley to a quaint town square to a small boat, all the while basking in the adoration of the oh-so-grateful (and polite!) Canadian audiences.

This provides plenty of entertaining vignettes, such as Jack trying to comprehend why it’s still daylight in the Yukon after 11pm. And in one of the film’s most effective sequences, Jack and Meg visit a community of Inuit elders and take turns sharing their music with one another. This gets at one of the film’s wink-nudge elements: many of the communities they visit have no idea who they are, and you can feel the film winking at you, as if to say, “If these people had any idea who they were seeing, they’d be freaking out! But they have no idea! This is classic.”

Whether it’s the Inuit elders, unsuspecting bystanders at spontaneous public appearances, or the endless array of clueless yet jovial small-town mayors who welcome them, the film never tires of mining these culture-shock moments for the (presumably urbane and quite familiar with The White Stripes) audience. And maybe it’s a little bit patronizing.

But hey, it works. I’m not gonna pretend I was familiar with all the parts of Canada they visit in the film. Canada is an astonishingly massive country, and vast sections of it appear utterly untouched by “civilization,” as it were. And, granted, Jack and Meg were intentionally touring some of the smaller places that don’t usually get big rock bands coming to town. As such, it functions quite effectively as an unlikely Canadian travelogue.

In addition to Canada, there is another mysterious enigma being explored here: Jack and Meg White themselves. But don’t expect any confessionals. Jack, of course, does most of the talking, and the topics adhere strictly to the band itself. Which is not surprising, given how closely Jack seems to manage it.

He goes over some of the basics (using self-imposed limitations to create, etc), and talks a fair bit about his own press. He discloses the favorite thing he’s ever read about his band, from Spin, when a journalist said The White Stripes were simultaneously the fakest and realest band in the world. He looks utterly delighted with himself while repeating this. But overall, Jack is likable enough: passionate, knowledgeable, ferociously talented, unselfconsciously nerdy at times, swaggering sexily at others.

And then there’s Meg. Despite being onscreen in nearly every shot of the film, Meg speaks maybe five times. “No one can hear a goddamned word you’re saying,” Jack half-jokingly yells at her, and it’s true: every single word she says is subtitled for the audience’s comprehension. And yet, she still has that famously luminous and provocative presence, looking like Bettie Page reincarnated as a hipster librarian, quietly taking everything in around her while smiling coyly from one side of her mouth.

The film is nearly at its halfway point by the time she actually gets around to saying something other than murmured responses to Jack’s jokes, and eventually he addresses her silence and the rumors that he doesn’t allow her to talk in interviews. Unfortunately it does little to dispel the rumors, going something like this:

Jack: “She never talks! Ever! And people are always saying that it’s because I won’t let her speak in interviews, but that isn’t true! Is it, Meg?”

Meg: (silence)

J: “She talks when she wants to! She’s just shy! Aren’t you, Meg? Aren’t you shy?”

M: “I—”

J: “She’s shy! That’s why she doesn’t talk! I wish she’d talk more, but she doesn’t! Do you, Meg?”

M: “I—”

J: “So people are always blaming me, but it’s not my fault! Actually, Meg, I want you to clear this up once and for all! I want you to tell the camera that I let you talk! Do it!”

M: “He—”

J: “TELL THE CAMERA THAT I LET YOU TALK!”

M: “He lets me—”

J: “I let her talk! She just doesn’t wanna talk! She’s shy! Isn’t that right, Meg?”

M: “I’m shy.”

J: “So there you go!”

But when he isn’t berating her for not talking while simultaneously talking over her, Jack displays a playful and lived-in affection for Meg. But if you’re looking for an exposé on the true nature of Jack and Meg’s relationship, you won’t find it here. Jack sticks to the “siblings” story, and Meg doesn’t say much of anything. Their personal history is not up for discussion; just the history of their band.

However, there is a remarkably powerful and haunting sequence at the end of the film that tells you everything and nothing about the Whites at the same time. In stark black and white (like much of the film’s non-concert sequences), Meg sits on a piano bench with Jack while he plays and sings “White Moon.” Each of them appears to be under significant emotional weight. Then, Meg starts crying. It is unexpected, and it is piercing. Jack continues to play, also seeming deeply distraught. And watching this sacred and hushed moment, you begin to understand that whatever their history, it is truly significant, and only known to them.

Oh, also: this is a concert film! Ha. Right, there’s also music. More music than non-music. I’d say maybe a 60/40 split. The performances are suitably intense and explosive, and cover a wide range of their material. This film is being released simultaneously in theaters, On Demand, and on DVD/Blu-ray, so if you’re a White Stripes fan or just a Canada enthusiast, there’s much here to enjoy.

DVD tracklist:

1. Let’s Shake Hands
2. Black Jack Davey
3. Black Math
4. Little Ghost
5. Blue Orchid
6. The Union Forever
7. Icky Thump [Version from Film]
8. Apple Blossom
9. Wheels On The Bus
10. We Are Going To Be Friends
11. Let’s Build A Home
12. Catfish Blues
13. Hello Operator
14. Screwdriver
15. Cold Cold Night
16. Slowly Turning Into You
17. Lord Send Me An Angel
18. Jolene
19. I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart
20. Catch Hell Blues
21. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself
22. Death Letter
23. Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn
24. Fell In Love With A Girl
25. When I Hear My Name
26. Wasting My Time
27. My Doorbell
28. Seven Nation Army
29. White Moon

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Gordon Elgart March 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

This is probably the best review of this movie that will be written. I’m glad to have it on our site.

Reply

Jason March 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Aw, thanks Gordon!

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Tony March 16, 2010 at 11:38 am

Great review, really makes me want to see the movie.

Reply

casey March 16, 2010 at 6:42 pm

this is a wonderfully written review. i’m going to see this tonight in a few minutes at the echoplex in los angeles, but i may feel as though i already watched it… 🙂

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Juan November 5, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Hi, I´m a white stripes fan from Spain, looking for reviews of this movie, and this is the best i´ve found. congratulations

Reply

Rick Chance July 9, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I you’ve seen the movie you’d know that this review misses the mark here and there and actually isn’t that great. If you feel this film was ‘patronizing’ in any way, you are going out of your way looking for things to take issue with. The only part where it was clear no one knew who they were and they are ‘knudge-winking’ the audience is when they are meeting with the elders in Iqualit. In almost all the other impromptu daytime show moments its quite clear most people know who they are.
Also the summary of the conversation about Jack never letting Meg speak in interviews is TOTALLY wrong. The quotes are completely inaccurate. Jack basically brings up the topic, asks Meg to quantify it briefly, and leaves it to her by saying “just tell them what your opinion is”. To which Meg says “I’m Shy”
Jack then says “What would say to people who say, ‘Jack won’t ever let Meg talk’?”
Meg’s response ” I would say that you(Jack) has nothing to do with it!” and then they both start laughing.

It’s a great music doc to begin with. You can tell they really did their homework before setting out on the road, and they are super respectful to Canadian culture and all the people they come accross. If you’re a White Stripes fan then you’re in the double bonus here(ie you’ll love it)

Reply

Jason LeRoy July 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Uh-oh, looks like Jack White finally read this review.

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zeppelin August 30, 2012 at 1:25 am

NICEEEEEEEEEEE

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