Starring: Jmmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham
Running Time: 125 minutes
As soon as I walked into the cinema foyer for this screening I was greeted by a staff member saying, ‘You must be here for the Led Zeppelin film – you look like a rocker.’ A good start and it got better.
The film in question is Celebration Day – which captures the mighty Zeppelin’s already legendary 2007 reunion concert at London’s O2 Arena. Zeppelin guitarist guitarist and main keeper of the Zep flame Jimmy Page revealed last month: “When we played the O2 the idea wasn’t to make a film. It just so happened that we had some very fine production and and camera work that Dick Carruthers was doing. It made sense to record it, even if it was just for our own amusement.”
Twenty million of us applied for tickets for that gig but only 20,000 lucky souls were there on the night itself. So this film, followed by a DVD release, is the closest the vast majority of us will get to the seeing and hearing the brief 21st century version of this most iconic of British rock bands.
I confess I did have a degree of trepidation prior to entering the packed screening. Could the band cut it all these decades on? Would Jason Bonham prove to be a chip of the old block and fill father John’s drum stool with the required aplomb? Could Robert Plant’s voice still cope with the pyrotechnics that are a required part of the full Zeppelin experience? I know the gig received rave notices at the time, but the near hysterial entusiasm surrounding the most eagerly awaited gig in decades can get to even the hardest of hacks and lead to a degree of journalistic hyperbole. Simply put, would the concert work for a big screen audience?
From the opening riff of set-opener Good Times, Bad Times all my concerns vanished. Here was a band in total control and playing as if they’d never gone their separate ways following Bonzo’s untimely death in 1980. Lingering memories of those two other awful reuinions, for Live Aid and the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden, were instantly banished.
Jimmy Page may have a mop of grey hair, but he looked healthier and more robust than the frail waif-like figure I saw at Knebworth in 1979 and his playing showed the benefits of his return to health. A spry-looking John Paul Jones flitted effortlessly between bass and keyboards, as always, and formed an impressive rhythm section with Jason Bonham who, as fans who have seen Black Country Communion live can attest, is an awesome drummer in his own right. His technique and mannerisms are so reminiscent of his dad that it’s almost eerie.
The biggest revelation was Robert Plant who shelved the controlled, more composed vocal style of his recent solo work and chose to connect once more with his inner rock god. He may not have gone for the full Golden God strut and preen routine, but their was more than a nod to the Percy of old, even if his beard threw a touch of Catweazel into the mix. He even managed to sing Stairway To Heaven with apparent conviction, despite his well known reservations about the song.
In a set packed with 24 carrat classics it’s hard to single out a highlight, but In My Time Of Dying, with Jones on fretless bass and Page on slide guitar, was truly spectacular. It was the blues on steroids AND turned up to 11 – wonderful stuff!
Dick Carruthers has done a solid, unobtrusive job of letting the action on stage speak for itself. He occasionally splices some fleeting, grainy 3:4 aspect ratio footage, mainly shot from the viewpoint of the audience pit, into the main widescreen, hi-def material – presumably intended to mimic fans’ ropey mobile phone footage.
As the band tend to form a knot centre stage for the majority of the gig it gives the director the oportunity to capture the happy personal interplay between bandmates – a nod here, a smile or raised eybrow there – that would have been mainly unseen by the audience on the night. Capturing these small moments is where the big screen treatment really comes into it’s own. Only during Jimmy Page’s violin bow sequence in Dazed And Confused did the show become really visually expansive for the arena audience, as Page is surrounded by the familiar pyramid of lasers.
The sound is, in the main, pretty impressive. My only minor caveat is that Jonesey’s bass occasionally distorts and sounds “farty” during the quieter sections, and his Korg synth idoesn’t sound as quite as good as an old Fender Rhodes when it’s in piano mode during the likes of No Quarter and Trampled Underfoot.
The same keyboard works much better during an epic Kashmir. Plant has admitted it’s at the end of the this song his vocals had to be tweaked in post-production and he said: “To be honest I’d run out of steam. There’s only so many long notes you can hold.” This minor fix is not obviously apparent.
It may have taken five years from gig to cinema release, but as Jones said: “That’s about five minutes in Zeppelin time. Having the latest technology, a lot of microphones and cameras too, did help. Everything looked fantastic and sounded fantastic.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Martyn P Jackson
*Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day is currently on limited cinema release and wilL be released on DVD on 19 November