In one of the key scenes from Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film “Almost Famous,” an aspiring rock star played by Billy Crudup stands on a rooftop in Topeka, Kansas, throws out his arms and shouts, “I am a golden god!” As an expression of stoned rock-star hubris, it’s perfect – but it’s also based on a real rock star, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, who apparently made that proclamation from the top of the Continental Hyatt House in Los Angeles sometime back in the late 1960s or early ’70s.
Plant’s exclamation pretty much sums up Led Zeppelin, the subjects of Bernard MacMahon’s “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” which premiered on Saturday at the Venice Film Festival. They were true rock gods from a time when the music of the ’60s was splintering, fragmenting and in need of a new breed of gods – and they knew it, gloried in it and made light of it, all at the same time.
From the start, they were designed to be bigger and louder and bolder than everybody else, but also to wrap their bravado in mystique. Their contract allowed them to make their music without interference from the record company; they considered themselves an album band and refused to make singles; and they rarely talked to the press, which for the most part didn’t like them nearly as much as the fans did. They let few people behind the curtain – not in their prime and rarely since they disbanded after the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980.
That’s why “Becoming Led Zeppelin” is something of an event, even in a year chock full of music documentaries. MacMahon and writer-producer Allison McGourty persuaded the three surviving members of the band – singer Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones – to give their blessings to the project, to open their archives and to sit for interviews, making them the only voices heard in the film. (Bonham is heard in the audio recording of an Australian interview.)
In a year in which nonfiction films have included Questlove’s Sundance winner “Summer of Soul” and Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers,” “Becoming Led Zeppelin” is one of the biggest gets … and also one of the most conventional films.
It offers glimpses of the band we’ve never seen before, but it also withholds a lot. And it’s entirely true to the spirit of the band, which was known for marathon concerts and never made an album without at least one song longer than six minutes. In other words, it’s potent as hell and as excessive as “Physical Graffiti,” the 1975 album whose excess was pretty much inseparable from its power.
If you’re a diehard fan, you’ll probably glory in what the film delivers and wish there were more of it; if you’re not, you may find yourself power-chorded into submission sometime before the 2-hour and 17-minute running time comes to an end.
Diehard fans, though, are the clear target audience for “Becoming Led Zeppelin” – which, unlike most music docs, feels no need to establish in its opening moments why its subject is important. Instead, it gives us a bit of “Good Times Bad Times,” the leadoff song from Zeppelin’s first album, and then goes straight into Jimmy Page telling us his real name (James Patrick Page) and when he was born.
From there, we go almost 50 minutes without hearing a note of Zeppelin music. In a way, though, that’s the most entertaining stretch of the film, with the band members talking eagerly about the music that impacted them when they were growing up in 1950s England: skiffle king Lonnie Donegan, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B titans Little Richard and Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, the Johnny Burnette Trio, and on and on.
MacMahon trots out familiar clips to go alongside old family photos, and his film becomes a spirited tribute to the power of music to change young lives. And while it might be ungenerous to suggest that no Led Zep performance later in the film could ever feel as vibrant or as transgressive as the old footage of Little Richard or Johnny Burnette or Sonny Boy Williamson, I suspect that Page and Plant and Jones might well agree with that assessment.
Some of the anecdotes are priceless: At the age of 14, Jones became the organist and choirmaster at his church, a job that paid him 25 pounds a year and enabled him to buy an electric bass; Page became such an in-demand session musician in London that he jumped from working with the Who and the Kinks to Petula Clark (“Downtown”!) and Shirley Bassey (“Goldfinger”!!).
Some of the information is widely known, but it’s a treat to watch Page, Plant and Jones deliver it in tones that suggest they’re still youthful fans, not jaded stars. MacMahon also shows them their own old clips: Watching his teenage self on a British show called “All Your Own,” Page breaks into a big grin and leans forward in his chair to catch every pubescent move.
Before long, Page ended up in the Yardbirds, Plant and Bonham in a variety of groups and Jones in every studio in London, where he faked his way into adding arranger to his resume. They crossed paths here and there, and got together in a legendary 1968 rehearsal session when Page was looking to form a new group after the breakup of the Yardbirds.
There’s no audio or video from the rehearsal, but the band members describe the pivotal moment when they all began to play “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” an old jump blues song that had been appropriated by Johnny Burnette and then the Yardbirds. Jones recalls being shaken by Plant, “this screaming maniac with a fantastic voice,” while Page says, “I was absolutely convinced that everyone knew that was a life-changing experience.”
And it was, because it was the moment Led Zeppelin was born. From there, “Becoming Led Zeppelin” takes an hour and a half to cover the band’s first two albums, with lengthy performances in place of the short clips that had been used in the first section of the film. This can be thrilling at times, whether it’s “How Many More Times” in front of a small audience in Denmark or “Communication Breakdown” on a British TV show where some in the audience are grimacing and holding their ears.
Expecting a similar response when they made their first American tour, Page says he told the band, “Let’s just play for each other. It doesn’t matter how many people there are – let’s just play for ourselves.” But there were lots of people, they loved the band, and Zeppelin was a huge hit almost out of the box, especially in the U.S.
Apart from a few full-length filmed performances, the filmmakers seem to be dealing with snippets, which they intersperse with news footage, stock shots of airplanes and city streets and other tricks to fill out the songs. It works for a while, but it also grows repetitive – and by the time they deal with the second album, “Led Zeppelin II,” by showcasing every song in extended sequences, the approach has become wearying. (You might also find yourself looking carefully to figure out if you’re actually seeing footage from a performance of the song you’re hearing.)
The focus on the music is no doubt one of the reasons why the band members agreed to participate in “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” but it’s hard not to wish we could see some interaction in addition to the solo interviews, or some more personal glimpses beyond the fact that Bonham’s wife told him to stay away from Plant, or some attempt to address the on-the-road bacchanalia for which the band was also known.
But that’s not the movie that MacMahon and McGourty set out to make. This is a very particular look at a specific period in a remarkable career, told in the way the participants want it to be told. It’s valuable because of who’s telling the story – and if they’re not telling us everything we want to know, they’re telling us things we wouldn’t get any other way.
At its best, “Becoming Led Zeppelin” reminds me of the most memorable Led Zeppelin performance I ever saw. It wasn’t even the original lineup: It was in 1988, when Jason Bonham had been recruited to take his late father’s place behind the drums at Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary concert. The day before that show, a friendly publicist snuck me into Madison Square Garden, where we sat at the back of the hall to be as inconspicuous as possible.
But in that setting, casual but focused as they rehearsed for the concert, they were spectacular. They weren’t golden gods and they weren’t performing for the masses; they were four guys making a fearsome sound by themselves in an empty arena. There was an intimacy to go with the thunder – as Page says in the movie, they were playing for themselves. And at it’s best, that’s what “Becoming Led Zeppelin” lets you see.
Oh, by the way, lots of guitar shops have signs on their walls that read “No ‘Stairway’” to dissuade amateurs from showing off their chops on that particularly overplayed staple. Well, fans of that song should know that given the film’s focus on 1968-1970 Zeppelin, there’s no “Stairway to Heaven” in “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” either.