Under Great White Northern Lights, the film, is a fantastic visual representation of a relatively enigmatic band as they try to fulfill their goal of playing a show in every Canadian province. We all (or at least I) know that Jack White is one of the most consistently fantastic songwriters of this generation, but director Emmett Malloy shows off the man's adept sense of humor and passion for his art in a way that humanizes him in a fashion long overdue. The film also sheds some much-needed light on The Stripes' percussionist, Meg White, who we finally hear speak for an extended period of time, to find that... well she doesn't really have much to say.
Under Great White Northern Lights, the album, is a compilation of the band's performances that bridge the scenes of the film. It does not exhibit White's sense of humor. As the man explains in the film, he consciously moves instruments farther and farther away from each other so that he has to work harder and harder to play them and still maintain a cohesive performance. Even the keyboard introduced on the tour with the release of the band's latest, Icky Thump, is less an addition of texture but another weapon that White can assault his audience, and, more importantly, himself, with. The result of this setting finally committed to disc is the most ragged release The White Stripes career since their self-titled debut.
As a result, the best tracks performed on Under Great White Northern Lights are the ones that were made around that time in the band's career. The best on Under Great is the band's performance of the Citizen Kane-quoting "The Union Forever", from White Blood Cells, where White sounds somewhere between exasperated and malicious as he hollers "You can't be loved / For there is no true love". For the song's coda, White screams those words with only a devious keyboard supporting him, and it's the most convincingly insane White's ever been. Similar sonic compatriots "Black Math" from Elephant and "Jolene" from The White Stripes are exhilaratingly naked performances.
Conversely, Under Great White Northern Lights is weakest when the band plays tracks from the album they are supporting in that tour, 2007's Icky Thump. Icky Thump, in its own right, is a classic on par with the best The White Stripes have released, but, in this setting, the performances constantly sound like they're missing some form of depth. "Icky Thump" is relatively salvaged, but deep cuts like "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpoor Blues" and "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" don't fare as well, as their inherently layered style is not represented well with just Jack and Meg trying their best to maintain their oxygen intake.
If you're more partial to the band's ragtag early career in the vein of their self-titled and White Blood Cells, you will inevitably love the bulk of Under Great White Northern Lights. White Stripes fans in general should also greatly enjoy this, but if you are interested in The Stripes and see this as a way of introducing yourself to them, I would avoid this. For however excellent Under Great White Northern Lights is, it is a starkly singular representation of a band that has gone through a lot more changes in its decade-long career than people give it credit for.