Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains The Same
Sounds, 13 November 1976
SO THERE we were. We'd pushed through the crowds outside the Warner West End theatre. Run the gamut of flashbulbs. Said Hello to the McCartneys. Sat down amongst Amanda Lear, Lisa Todd, Billy Connolly and a veritable galaxy of stars. Listened to SwanSong's finest over the p.a. Now we waited.
Zeppelin walked in single file, looking slightly sheepish. Page looked skeletal. The front half of the audience – the paying members – rose in respect. Perhaps Zep looked sheepish because they had just done the same thing 30 minutes earlier a few blocks away at the Shaftesbury Avenue ABC. Yes, it was typical Zeppelin efficiency: two premieres at once. They probably had time for a Milky Way, the sweet you can eat between premieres.
Several colleagues weren't enthusiastic about this cinematic sensation. After all, the New York Daily News had given it a 0 star out of a possible five, and the transatlantic grapevine had been afire with considered opinions. Perhaps the ultimate comment of the unconvinced was that overheard at the party afterwards: "My only complaint is it was two hours too long."
The Song Remains The Same lasts two hours, 15 minutes.
I was hoping for the best. Good rock movies are few and far between, but with the legendary Zep it-has-to-right-or-not-at-all attitude, one was optimistic. And with the equally legendary fantasy sequences intersecting the concert sequences, it promised to be a possibly fascinating, revealing insight into Led Zep as people as well as rock Olympians.
But that was the trouble. Zeppelin as mere mortals, giving specific insight into their private lives and fantasies, were largely depressing. Embarrassing even.
No wonder John Paul Jones remains silent and doesn’t give interviews if his idea of himself is the amateur Halloween/Hammer pastiche presented as his fantasy. (He shows himself to be a marvellous family man, though.)
Robert Plant's notion of being King Arthur wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so simplistic. The superimposing of a rampant Excalibur in a sea of flames as Percy approaches the young damsel is one of cinema's sillier moments. (Not to mention finding a large, bright red, plastic looking mushroom under a tree.) The only thing missing was the box of Black Magic and a calling card.
Only Jimmy Page survives the pretensions of cosmickness, scaling the trials and tribulations of the mortal coil in the quest for Godhead.
John Bonham, perhaps wisely, keeps to the real World, revealing a love for dancing and very fast cars. More power to him.
Peter Grant's sequence was entirely in keeping – the ultimate manager's fantasy, loaded with abstract symbolism. Opening the film, it sets the tone: fun and games, but only because it's fuelled by business-as-usual.
But the stage sequences are something else again. Closer than you'll ever be to the group at a gig, it's great to watch Jimmy's fingering or Jones' bass work. Bonham's drum solo actually becomes interesting.
The visuals are good, but there's a limited amount of angles you can use on a stage, and by the second hour the repetition is wearing. It's just like being at a live gig but you can't walk around.
What compounded this was the sound. The cinema's speakers just weren't made for it, distorting the bass end all night because of the volume. Halfway through they began to break up. Overall it was dominated by a piercing treble. Without highs and lows it wasn't very pleasant.
The trouble with this film is it's so easy to knock it. Take the technical aspects. They're excellent, but the optical effects belong in a 1968 psychedelic film. Or the documentary aspects. Nowhere is the work that goes into a tour detailed. The boys get a telegram announcing a tour; the next day they're stepping off the plane onto the stage. Backstage scenes are shown without meaning or connection.
The sad thing about knocking it is that I basically liked it. Indulgent, yes, silly, too. But there's a liveliness in the Madison Square Garden sequences rarely seen in rock films, and some of the music – particularly 'Since I've Been Loving You' – is out of this world.
In the end you have to conclude it's exactly what it's advertised as: the world's most expensive home movie. Or as the Biz wigs told each other afterwards, 'This is to satisfy the average Zep fan and let him see the group at a time when they're not on the road'. How mercenary. How business-as-usual.
© Jonh Ingham, 2007