Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same

(Peter Clifton, Joe Massot, UK/USA, 1976): When Robert Plant once dismissed this movie as “a load of bollocks”, he was of course observing a long tradition of rock stars dumping on documentaries they appeared in. Dylan hated Dont Look Back because it made him look like a dink. John Lennon and George Harrison hated Let it Be because it made the dissembling Beatles look like Paul McCartney’s band. The Rolling Stones variously disavowed both Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues for making the band look like the bored, pampered, rich gentry they most indisputably had become.

But the difference is instructive. In each of those cases, the subjects disowned their portraits as negative representations of themselves. The movies contradicted the way they’d prefer to be seen. They were not, in other words, the movies the bands would have made of themselves.

No such dodge applies to The Song Remains the Same, the wobbly doc/vanity project released in late ’76 after nearly three years of editing, re-shooting and general campaigns of rearguard repair. Peter Clifton and Joe Massot’s movie was paid for out of pocket by the world’s most popular rock band — who frankly never seemed to have much room in their pockets for anything — and as such provides us with a rather starkly revealing projection of LZ as exactly the way they wanted to be seen as they crested the mountaintop of rock world domination. If the band hated The Song Remains the Same, it was because they balked at their own vision of Led Zeppelin.

This likely comes down to the movie’s most notoriously embarrassing elements, a quartet of fantasy sequences that run beneath live performance audio, and in which the band are allowed to play dream-world visions of themselves. And boy, oh, boy: apart from John Bonham’s rather strangely touching appearance as a family landowner who tends to his cattle and enjoys a high-velocity spin in his personal racing car, the rest of LZ come across as pretentious gits playing daft dressup: John Paul Jones, wearing a bowl-cut wig Emo Phillips apparently made note of, appears as a Dr. Syn-like 18th century nocturnal common-folk crusader who comes home at dawn to loving wife and child. Plant is a flaxen-haired knight on horseback who rescues a damsel held hostage in a castle after smiting her captors. And Page — oh lord — takes the whole cake away by appearing as a man summoned to a mountaintop by a Tolkienesque, wand-waving hooded hermit who ultimately reveals himself to be — Jimmy Page! At the very least, this may be the only extant evidence we have of LZ’s influence on Stevie Nicks. And if rock was eventually to crumble under its own grandiosity and release the vermin punks from the rubble, one need look no further than this to see the cracks..

For there’s no arguing this: the fantasy sequences are indeed bad above beyond even the most misbegotten call to duty of bad, and so bad they not only may mark the only instance in LZ’s official archive of released material which not even fans venture to defend, but so bad they can’t even be re-claimed by time, retroactive camp revisionism or the all-forgiving sacrosanct reputation of what is now widely thought to be the greatest band of the gargantuan-scaled ’70s rock era. If there’s a single motion-picture rock artefact that makes the case for This is Spinal Tap‘s redundancy or at least neorealist restraint, apart perhaps from the ‘band therapist’ passages in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster or the ultimately heartbreaking entirety of Anvil: The Story of Anvil, it’s Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same.

Otherwise, it’s perfectly riveting, of course. Not just for lifelong LZ volume-crankers like myself, but as perhaps the most revealing document we have on just how mortal these Gods may be even though they sport on Olympus. More than anything, what impresses about this movie is how fucked up it manages to be on almost every level. There’s the arrival by private jet of the band at the beginning, who are then escorted to their first gig in a motorcade that seems like something straight out of Saudi Arabian limo service infomercial. (No shame about being rich and famous for these guys: they wear it as proudly as their trouser pouches.) Then there’s the dodgy recording and filming of the shows — three nights at Madison Square Gardens in ’73 — which was ultimately so poor and inconsistent Zep manager Peter Grant fired original director Joe Massot and arranged to have mimed performances shot at Shepperton in London to cover the gaps (which are only covered as well as John Paul Jones’ skull, which sports an outrageously obvious Buster Brown wig in certain sequences), and which dragged the movie’s release by nearly three years. While much of the performance itself is impermeably vintage, Houses of the Holy-era Zep, the intrusive seams of desperate patchwork — slo-mo, discount visual effects, freeze-frames, cutaways to Peter Grant making like the most colossally unpleasant rock manager of all time — function as constant reminders that this was a movie doomed and damaged on every from the outset, and the wonder is not only that ever got made and released in any incarnation whatsoever, but that it somehow managed to stand as the only official visual document of Zeppelin available until the Page managed-and-approved releases of How the West Was Won in 2003 and the Celebration Day one-shot 2007 reunion gig package in 2012.

And there’s the wonder, really. Considering just how fastidious and stingy Page has otherwise been in the doling out of the official band legacy and brand, and in light (let’s face it) of both the band’s predilection for protecting their privacy and perfecting their music, there’s something almost endearing about the mere existence of The Song Remains the Same, which would otherwise seem to be as likely a candidate for banishment to eternal bootleg limbo as such other potentially over-revealing embarrassments as Eat the DocumentLet it Be or Cocksucker Blues. That it has not only been left to stand, but stand for so long as the only available legit source for experiencing the mighty Zep as live spectacle, is almost endearing. Considering not only how raggedy-assed but unflatteringly revealing the movie is, but how no member of the band comes across as quite as naff as Jimmy Page, the movie’s endurance as the primary window through which to view the band in all its pompous but still monumental rock-era glory gives a kind of pause. It reminds us mere mortals of the hubris and folly of the gods, who were not above the occasional smack of the hammer to their own heads. (Warner Home Video)