For me, The White Stripes always seemed like a one trick pony garage/blues band. They’re the epitome of the movie you never need to see twice. As a leading man, Jack White is dynamic and charismatic. He’s a study in how to captivate the crowd — he’s studied his lines, he hits his mark and he’s mastered his influences. There’s no denying the power of The White Stripes, but it felt like the band had two tunes — one loud, the other quiet, and not only that, the spotlight largely fell on their presentation. The red, the white, the black — the candy-cane colours and the candy-coated candour of Jack and Meg White.
It’s a subject that still rankles ol’ Jack and something he addresses in Under Great Northern Lights, a live album slash tour documentary of the Canadian leg of their Icky Thump tour in 2007. Sitting next to his sister/ex-wife in non-regulation colours, Jack theorises over why people still seem to consider The White Stripes as being a pre-meditated act. Why indeed? Everybody needs an angle these days to sell a product, and you can’t negate the fact it’s served The White Stripes well, with a longevity that outlasted the rash of Detroit bands following in the White’s garage rock wake.
The documentary is the real meat and potatoes of this package. Live albums these days are a throwback to a time when most people never got to see their favourite band perform. You put that record on, turned up the volume, turned down the lights, closed your eyes and tried to imagine you were there. These days with live internet broadcasts, Youtube and the advent of cheap airplane travel, the chance of missing out on your favourite band in action are over. If you’re stealthy enough and have the right equipment you can even take home your own memento, and it will be the undiluted and unedited truth. You don’t need an explanation on what you’ll find on the live disc — it’s 16 tracks of The White Stripes recorded in various venues across Canada. We all scream the same.
On stage or on record, The White Stripes are a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of band, and what the documentary makes patently clear, on record, they’re only half the band they are live. Beginning with their infamous ‘one note show’ to celebrate playing in every province and territory in Canada, Under Great Northern Lights follows the band in typical off-stage, travel, on-stage mode. Shot mostly in black and white, with the occasional red overlay, it’s a visually stunning film that does more justice to the film-maker, Emmett Malloy than the band. Given that the ‘band on the road’ documentary has been an established art-form for some 40 years or more, Malloy picks his set pieces (band disembarking from plane/travelling through the Canadian countryside), interspersing them with colour footage of live performances to keep the interest level high.
Having dispensed with the red and white wardrobe for less predictable attire with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, Jack White doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to return to The White Stripes stable. Given Under Great Northern Lights represents a band at their critical and commercial peak, it’s a valid visual epitaph (were it to be so) of a seminal band of the early 21st Century.