The new documentary The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights reveals as much about Canadian culture as it does about Jack and Meg White’s friendship, work ethic and music. The duo eat raw caribou, meet tribal elders, walk along frozen tundra, don traditional kilts and fire a canon — all while touring unconventional places in the summer of 2007 as director Emmett Malloy captured the experience for his film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“The idea was there was this gigantic frontier right next to where we grew up in Detroit that is just so untouched by our band, let alone bands in general,” Jack White said at a press conference, admitting the idea for the movie went against his normal inclinations. “I’m not too big of a reality TV show fan or peek-behind-the-curtains fan, especially in this day and age — there’s so much of that going on and there’s so little mystery about the world of music and creativity.”
“I think their biggest fear in life is to be normal,” Malloy, who has worked on videos for the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, tells Rolling Stone. “They don’t want to play a round of dates at all the typical spots. Places like Iqaluit lived up to the expectations. Getting out of the plane there felt like we were on the moon, and certainly meeting the elders there, that’s the closet I’ve ever come to feeling like, ‘Wow, these people did live in igloos.’ ”
As the White Stripes crossed Canada touring behind their sixth album, Icky Thump, they ambitiously hit every province and territory, including the Yukon and Nunavut. They also slipped in free secret daytime shows on a boat, a bus, at a bowling alley, YMCA, and other offbeat venues. And it was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, they “played” their notorious one-note “show” outdoors, before their main gig that evening.
“We were rolling into towns where a lot of people didn’t know who they were or what was going on. They just knew something big was going on in their small town and I think Jack and Meg knew that,” says Malloy. In one scene, one of their drivers quizzes them on the style of music they create. “It’s like a rock & roll band, but it’s just the two of us,” explained Meg, who is often teased by Jack in the film for speaking quietly or barely speaking at all.
Malloy was able to capture an endearing and intimate friendship between the two. The director doesn’t get on Meg’s case to perk up or talk more. In fact, we see her totally crashed out on a couch after a show, and there’s even a shot of the drummer shedding a tear in an emotional scene at the piano when Jack is singing. He hugs her and gives her a kiss; she cries.
“That’s the stuff the band let me keep in there to tell this story because I think they realized this is real,” Malloy says. “Post this tour, they canceled their shows and made an announcement that Meg needed a break,” he adds. “Obviously, there was a lot going on and certainly the film can lead you to your own theories.”
The tour included the band’s anniversary concert in Glace Bay, Cape Breton on July 14th, precisely 10 years to the day that the White Stripes played their first public gig in Detroit. Jack, who had recently discovered his Canadian ancestry, is seen getting acquainted with his distant relatives, such as iconoclastic fiddler Ashley MacIsaac and hockey legend Al MacInnis.
Malloy shot the doc in both black & white and color, and the Canadian flag, which happens to be red and white, fit perfectly with the White Stripes’ famous color scheme. “It felt like the whole country was art directed for us,” Malloy laughs.