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Sep 10, 2009

After turning Al Gore into a climate-change rock star, director Davis Guggenheim takes on the real thing.

By John McAlley

In the brief six months that it took to make his Oscar Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, director Davis Guggenheim barely left Al Gore’s side. Gore intimates will tell you that the former veep and now icon in the fight against global warming is a funny dude. “You are working with Al Gore,” Guggenheim says, “and you are laughing your ass off the entire time.”

Okay. But six unrelieved months of collaboration and intercontinental travel with a guy who tao-uks…lack…the-is? Can you blame Guggenheim for unleashing a blast of energy with his follow-up feature documentary?

It Might Get Loud may not ignite debate among K Street lobbyists and greenhouse gas experts, but it will alter the molecules of anyone who has headbanged to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” been pulled through U2’s ecstatically propulsive “Where the Streets Have No Name” or been flattened by a rock ’n’ roll tornado named Jack White, the immensely charismatic and fantastically odd frontman for the White Stripes and the Raconteurs.

What started out as a film about the electric guitar morphed into a revelatory, complex and music-filled portrait of three of its greatest chord-crunching practitioners: White, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge.

The film itself is as quirky and electrifying as the contrasting style of its three players and has at its center “The Summit,” a totally unscripted and unrehearsed tossing together of White, Page and The Edge on a vast soundstage in Los Angeles. The director had no idea what would happen when they got there.

“It’s scary,” Guggenheim says, surrounded by guitars in a Dallas studio, one of many stops he’s making to stump for his film. He’s talking about the random nature of the documentary process. “You don’t know, as you’re making the film, if any of it will cut together or whether you’ll even have a story in the end.”

In an era of fierce image control and in a world where mystique is even more important than hair mousse, why would any of these guitar heroes sign up for a big-screen picking apart? “It just seemed like Davis didn’t really know what kind of movie he wanted to make, and I liked that idea a lot,” White said to raucous laughter at the Toronto Film Festival, where the picture (which opens in theaters across the U.S. in the next few weeks) had its premiere last September.

Given the grab bag of compelling projects credited to the 46-year-old Guggenheim, he seems to have turned his making-it-up-as-we-go-along strategy into an art and a thriving career.

His father Charles, a political adviser and socially conscious filmmaker, was a five-time Oscar Award-winning documentarian, a passionate man whose career—and life, perhaps—peaked with Robert Kennedy Remembered, the heartbreaking Academy Award-honored tribute he made in the wake of his dear friend’s assassination in 1968.

After graduating from Brown, Davis purposely sidestepped his father’s shadow and the documentary track by moving from DC to LA, where his early success was—and his bread-and-butter work continues to be—in scripted television. It makes a strange sort of sense: who better to put punch into Al Gore’s “carbon capture” and “sequestration” lectures than an heir to a great documentary tradition with episodes of “Deadwood,” “24” and “The Shield” under his belt?

Hanging around with rock stars, having an Oscar triumph, owning a legit claim to having helped reverse global warming: If Guggenheim’s life weren’t charmed enough, he even landed a hot wife, actress Elisabeth Shue. How did he bring that one off?

“I was at a bar with a friend,” he says, “and I was gonna go home. But he said, ‘Let’s go to a bowling alley. There’s a party there.’ So we went to this bowling alley, this stupid bowling alley in LA. There were about 20 of us, and she took my ball. You know when you go bowling and you like your ball, and then someone takes it? Well, that’s how we started talking: she took my ball, we stayed up all night and I’ve been with her ever since. That was 20 years ago this November. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. So my advice is, go bowling.”

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