January 9, 2014: The Song Remains the Same (1976)

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Cast and Crew: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot (Directors); Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Peter Grant

What It’s About: Footage from Led Zeppelin’s 1973 concerts at Madison Square Garden is interspersed with unusual shorts conceived of by the band members.  The trailer promises “the music and mind of Led Zeppelin… in concert and beyond” (emphasis added).  From the final credits, we learn:
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It’s reassuring to know that John Bonham didn’t do any drag racing at Madison Square Garden, nor did Robert Plant do any sword-fighting, and that John Paul Jones refrained from riding out at night as a masked avenger mid-concert.

The Song Remains the Same is much-hated, possibly because it is so hard to fully answer the question “What It’s About.”  The initial impression that one will be watching a rock concert documentary is subverted by an opening sequence featuring Peter Grant, the band’s manager, as a vengeful Mafia don.  Oddly, a werewolf is also present, and an adversary of Grant’s is decapitated via Gatling gun in such a fashion as to cause four colors of blood to gush from his neck.  The special effects in Monty Python’s encounter with the Black Knight were more convincing.

I’ll return to the weird vignettes in a moment.  The DVD audio quality, watching this film today, is fantastic.  Several of the songs (I would highlight “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “Dazed and Confused”) make for very pointed reminders of the incredible power of this seminal hard rock group.   Admittedly, the movie is very, very long.  But even in the concert footage there is considerable visual interest.  The viewer can track the connection between Bonham and Jones, or watch everyone react to Page’s improvisations.  Plant’s posturing gets a little silly, but if the footage of him at home in an English idyll with his naked children is to believed, Plant poses like a model even when receiving his postal deliveries.  There is also plenty of variety to be found in the band’s fashion choices on stage (partly because of a snafu in which not everyone wore the same clothes across all the nights footage was taken from).  Plant wears an open blouse, accompanied by bell-bottomed jeggings that are embroidered on the crotch.  Jones rocks the blouse too, and even his tassels have tassels on them.  Page features an amazing black suit with cosmic and poppy-themed satin appliques.  The stolid drummer Bonham opts for a black sequined headband and a black t-shirt that is heavily Bedazzled.  Somehow, they don’t look ridiculous — they look like Rock Gods.

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Anyway, back to the weird vanity-project skits.  Occasionally seeing something that is not the four band members playing on stage isn’t that bad a thing in a film that stretches for more than two hours.  The soundtrack continues uninterrupted.  And the sketches may, perhaps, show us something of the “mind” of the band members after all.  Notorious manager Peter Grant comes first; Bonham, whose sketch comes last, has scenes that are closest to the bedrock of real life.  Jones involves all the band members in his masked, caped, eighteenth-century vigilante riding, and returns to a welcoming home life at the conclusion.  Plant’s sketch is about Plant alone, garbed as a knight, as he receives an enchanted sword a la Excalibur from an equestrienne, then defeats mail-clad thugs to rescue her in a ruined Norman castle.  The ladies love him…  The self-centered qualities of Plant’s sketch are eclipsed, however, by Page’s.  Dressed as a Victorian outdoorsman, the guitarist ascends a cliff only to confront a hermit who is…also Page.  Given his genius as a musician, however, I’m willing to allow a lot to Jimmy Page.  Some of his antics at the time — like allegedly kidnapping a 14-year-old groupie — probably shouldn’t be overlooked, but considering how young he became famous, and the excesses surrounding Led Zeppelin throughout its existence, it’s impressive that he’s still even alive today.

Why Watch it Today?: Jimmy Page was born on January 9, 1944.  He celebrates his seventieth birthday today.  Watch and compare the actual appearance of the septuagenarian grandmaster of guitar to the aged, bearded Hermit (derived from the tarot and Page’s fascination with Aleister Crowley) into which he is transformed in his vanity skit.  Marvel at his laser eyes and hurdy-gurdy playing.  He certainly has nothing to be ashamed of from the concert footage, which features awesome guitar solos and astounding period wardrobe.  A must-see for all Zeppelin fans.

While no one in Led Zeppelin sports leather trousers in this film, Led Zeppelin fashion is spectacular, so I leave you with two photos of the birthday boy:

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2 comments on “January 9, 2014: The Song Remains the Same (1976)

  1. T.A. Gerolami says:

    So are these “sketches” early music videos, or are they more mini-films? Color me suddenly interested despite my very passive relationship to the Zep (I grew up surrounded by Zepplin fans and hearing them constantly, but have never owned one of their albums, despite liking many of the songs).

  2. bellabone says:

    With the exception of the initial scenes (Peter Grant as mafia boss vignette, then the band members being gathered from their homes), I would categorize most of them as music videos because they don’t have an independent sound track. The concert audio continues over, for instance, Robert Plant sword fighting. The narrative approach reminds me of, say, Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” video (I would link to youtube, but they seem to have done a takedown on the audio on every version of that video that’s available). Interestingly, a couple of visual elements from the movie — flapping doves that appear a few times, and Page’s laser eyes — are echoed in the ridiculous “Total Eclipse of the Heart” music video (the “literal video” version of which is hilarious if you haven’t seen it yet… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsgWUq0fdKk).

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