on December 27, 2007
This movie deserves four stars simply because it is Led Zeppelin, and I am always transfixed to the screen when I am watching anything relating to the mighty Zep - the greatest rock band that ever existed or will ever exist. In terms of excitement and entertainment value, it scores big. Since there is not a whole lot out of the Zeppelin history out there on video, it remains a relatively iconic portion of the Zep legacy. Most of the decent video footage that has surfaced has already been released by the band (in part at least). A notable exception is the Seattle 1977 show, which is definitely being held back by the band due to the difficult performance offered by Page that night (although Page looked like he was having a great time on stage at least). I think it is apparent that, to the members of Zep, the maintenance of the Zeppelin image for posterity overshadows all other considerations, including satisfying freaks like myself that want to see it all, the good and the not as good (I subscribe to the NBZ idea - No Bad Zep). This unpredictability and playing on the edge of pandemonium are part of what made Zeppelin so interesting.
I have a bootleg of one of the 1973 MSG shows and the playing is probably average or slightly above average for a Zeppelin show at that time. 1973 is when the first signs of strain started to appear in the Zeppelin live experience. The (bootleg) shows from 1968-1972 are all very consistently good, I think peaking in 1972 which simply put had some of the most powerful and well-executed live performances ever given in the history of rock music. Even the British swing of early 1973 was still at or near this level. By the American tour of 1973, I think the strains of the constant touring were taking their toll on the band and the playing began to become more inconsistent. I also think real indulgences by the band were starting to factor in slightly, but were a long way off from creating the serious problems as they began to do a couple of years later (1975 there being discernible signs of it, and by 1977 the cat was out of the bag, for Page at least, and also Bonham to some extent who just seemed to overcompensate by playing more "over the top" than on previous tours - leading to some fantastic executions of Moby Dick).
The thing to remember with this film is that it is a movie, and some of the stage performances are as much a fiction as the fantasy sequences. It is apparent to anyone watching closely that occasionally the activity you are seeing on the screen does not match the sounds you are simultaneously hearing. Quite a bit of it does match, but a fair amount of it does not. The parts that do match, particularly some of Page's wizardry, are worth the price of admission (whatever this means) and are primarily why the movie gets 4 stars. But it is tough to watch certain parts, as the idea that much of it was overdubbed in the studio is hard to get by. This bothers me even more than some of the abrupt edits which definitely could have been done more smoothly (most notably during No Quarter and Whole Lotta Love). Also the fantasy sequences in No Quarter and Dazed and Confused prevent us from seeing the display of some of the most amazing guitar sequences ever played. Now I have heard that it has been said that they did not have complete video footage, and had to make do with what they had and thus could not match the audio to the video in many cases. This might be true, but nonetheless, for a hardcore Zep fan like myself, it is frustrating and one gets the feeling they could still have somehow done more to make it at least feel more authentic.
The thing about Zeppelin is they were experimenters on stage. No two shows are alike in the sense that a Rush concert, or a Clapton show might be. You can listen to ump-teen bootlegs and not find two shows that are even close to being identically performed. The same songs would sometimes only vary slightly from night to night, but vary they would. A great example of consecutive shows that are each markedly unique from each other are the Los Angeles shows from June of 1977 (6 nights in 7 days I think). On what was an otherwise inconsistent tour, Zeppelin managed to string together a set of really fine performances over this week, and each show having something remarkably unique about it (or at least the three that I own are this way, but I have read reviews of the other three).
But back to experimenting - this is what made them the most interesting live band around. The problem with experimenting on stage, is that, by definition, not all experiments work, but when they do the rewards are great. The detractors like to focus on the times when they do not work. However, claims that Page or Bonham are sloppy tend to focus on the rough spots a bit much, where they might be in unchartered musical territory, and ignore the other large portion of the time when what you are witnessing are almost supernatural displays of talent and precision playing - by all members of the band, Plant (vocally) and Jones included.
By the end of the 1973 tour when the film was shot, Zeppelin were clearly a bit worn out. Page did his best to look and act like the rock-God he was, but it almost seems a bit forced or manufactured. He seems much less relaxed than he does during other live performances I have seen, especially from before 1973. But Zeppelin had painted themselves into a hole with the time frame of the filming. Due to financial or other considerations, this film became something like a Zeppelin version of Operation Barbarossa - started too late and hoping for some good fortune. What they got, however, were a series of average performances at the end of a tour that seemingly had lasted for 60 months. So what was Page and Co. to do? Well wave the magic wand of technology and try to make it better!
The fantasy sequences are revealing as to the band members' mentality. The weakest of them is Plant's sword fight and maiden rescue. His easy demeanor does give the feeling that this is how Plant spends his off days - consuming fungi in dark arboreal settings and then riding about saving maidens, all the while thinking of lyrics. Jones' sequence is a bit more interesting, as his true Jeckyll and Hyde nature is revealed. You always knew he had it, I mean no one can be in a band like Led Zep and really be so mild mannered underneath it all. Page's sequence is cool, not because of the supremely trippy encounter with himself as the Hermit, which is actually a piece of great cinema, but because it proved that the fragile appearing Page was still in pretty good physical shape. I mean I was concerned he was going to fall off that cliff he climbed up - seems kind of risky behavior if you ask me. But the best sequence, without a doubt, is Bonham's. That scene where he is revving up his car and then takes off, as all the while the drums are matching the activity of the engine, is just freaking amazing. Seriously, this is the best piece of artistry that the movie had to offer (other than the artists themselves performing live on the stage of course).
I first saw the movie when I was 13 years old in 1982 at a midnight movie (back when you could smoke J's in the theater and no one cared). It was like a religious experience for me. And it will remain so for legions of hardcore Zep fans around the world. And the video and sound production on the new film is far superior to the previous edition. And the bonus tracks and other materials really round out the experience. I just wish that the band was willing to give Zep fans a little more credit and just give us the real goods. Unfortunately for every understanding fan, there is some jerk off who bemoans some flaw to the point of absurdity. Just because Jimmy did not execute some reverse-arpeggiated pentatonic scale or something, perfectly... (I do not even know if these are valid guitar terms - I play drums). The truth is Page opened the door for all of the (mostly boring) blazing fast precision-meisters. This is why guys like Satriani for example, feel compelled to record the live version of Dazed and Confused from TSRTS, and I must say it was pretty damn good (a friend made me listen to it against my will), but still missing something, a presence, if you will, that Page had that others lack.
The main thing that The Song Remains The Same reminds me of is that Zeppelin was about energy above all else. This is not to say that Page did not have the natural talent of a Clapton or a Beck, but if he did not, he certainly made up for it in sheer will, determination, and energy. The main reason why for at least a five year period, Page was the best guitarist on the planet, was this energy. And this can be said of all the members of the band at this time. So ignore my purist ramblings and go buy the damn thing. Shut the blinds, grab a draught, turn up the speakers, and take the journey. Nick email@example.com.
P.S. - one last bit of advice for first timers - this movie is rated PG most likely in no small part due to Robert Plant's member starring as the sixth member of the band (closely following Peter Grant). It probably could have been rated R. Unless you are real secure in your manhood, do not watch with your girlfriend (or maybe you should as she might get all wokred up - it's a coin flip). One of the most awkward moments of my adolescent years was forcing my Mom to watch the movie with me. When the sixth man took center stage, there was an uncomfortable silence and I think I got up to make some popcorn. >> I debated whether to add this comment, but hopefully it will do somebody some good...