The Song Remains the Same
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
starring John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
directed by Joe Massot and Peter Clifton
by Bill Chambers I was a closet Led Zeppelin fanboy throughout my teen years. It wasn't because I thought their music reflected poor taste (no guilty pleasure, they--no need to sic Carl Wilson on me), but rather because there are connotations to liking them I felt misrepresented me and my affection for the band as facilitators of emotional catharsis. Affiliate yourself with The Cure and at the very least you'll score points with hot goth chicks; affiliate yourself with Led Zeppelin and expect to spend your Friday nights rolling 20-sided dice and/or mingling with ersatz hippies. In retrospect, I had basically separated the Led Zeppelin discography from the iconographic baggage that came with it; and I think part of the reason I could never get through The Song Remains the Same (the movie, not the album, although the album is no great shakes) as a teenager--other than the fact that, no matter how you slice it, it simply isn't very good--was because its goofy non sequiturs and psychedelic glaze endeavoured to undo all my hard work. I found its imagery psychically intrusive on the seven minutes a day I spent moping to "The Rain Song."
But I have to say, revisiting The Song Remains the Same some fifteen years after my last attempt wasn't nearly so trying. It probably helps that I haven't listened to Led Zeppelin with any regularity in over a decade, yet it probably helps even more that I'm a lot better versed in film history now. For this patchwork quilt of a concert doc doubles as an uncanny, if incidental, survey of contemporaneous British film and television through the prism of the band. The picture opens with a Performance by way of Hammer prologue (with a dash of, say, O Lucky Man!) in which pinstriped gangsters, led by Led Zeppelin's corpulent manager Peter Grant, mow down a castle filled with swastika-branded Chester Gouldian grotesques1 billed as "greedy millionaires,"2 the arterial spray producing a rainbow of Easter colours3--only to make, after a time-lapse intermezzo of the New York skyline, a whiplash transition to a hippie-dippy tableau of naked children frolicking in a pond to the delight of their father, Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. As a juxtaposition it's bad cinematic grammar, really (nothing happens to the kids; the hitmen are never heard from again), but it does parenthesize the creeping dread movie buffs had been conditioned to associate with rural England through its usage in UK fright flicks like Straw Dogs, Don't Look Now4, and Village of the Damned. Later, a picnicking Jimmy Page will turn to the camera with eyes that glow not unlike those of the Midwich offspring.
Other hommages take the form of dreamy interludes that overlap the concert sequences (filmed, for the most part, at Madison Square Garden). Pageboy-haired bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones materializes in a reimagining of Doctor Syn that's far more evocative of Witchfinder General. Plant takes a medieval (read: Arthurian) detour that plays like a mash-up of Stephen Weeks and the Polanski Macbeth. Page--transforming, Lon Chaney-style, into a Gandalf-ian old wizard (known in Zeppelin lore as "The Hermit") and back again to the accompaniment of his (fucking interminable) "Dazed and Confused" guitar solo--betrays the band's Tolkien influence most explicitly in a segment whose campiness, unintentional or not, draws attention, in conjunction with Plant's vignette, to the fact that Zeppelin co-financed Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And John "Bonzo" Bonham appears in a BBC pastiche of sorts, puttering around the English countryside in incongruously flashy modes of transport, entering a drag-race, and creating Kodak moments with his wife and family on the farm. It is said these are psychic projections of the group's innermost fantasies (or personal demons, as it were), which makes Bonham's paean to a quotidian routine all the more heartbreaking: Eschewing the metaphorical trappings favoured by his bandmates, Bonham, who apparently suffered from debilitating homesickness while on tour, opted for a super8-style reverie. Four years later, he would drink himself to death.
The problem with this framing device, if you can call it that, is largely one of aesthetics: This is one ramshackle film, the price of doing it independently with journeymen directors. Because Led Zeppelin were not in perpetual transition like The Beatles, it seems kind of preposterous to conflate the British screen's diverse crop of genres with the musical stylings of the band, and so taken as a revue of sorts, The Song Remains the Same starts to give off the musty odour of either a bargain-basement Amicus anthology or a failed attempt at sketch comedy in the dada vein of And Now for Something Completely Different. Taken as "a reasonably honest statement of where [Led Zeppelin] were at that particular time," to quote Jimmy Page in the NEW MUSIC EXPRESS, the picture is so ungainly that it has a habit of trivializing the group's individual attempts at self-expression. Anyone familiar with a song like "The Battle of Evermore" knows they're perfectly capable of spinning silk from the dopiest of conceits, but clearly film is not their forte.
Or perhaps--as the spotty solo careers of Page, Plant, and Jones demonstrate--that Led Zeppelin alchemy becomes too dilute when you take three of the four members out of the equation. The reason one doesn't immediately jump to this conclusion is that the band had cultivated a reputation for being uniquely compartmentalized; roles within the group were not interchangeable by any means and many of their most famous songs are transparent pretexts for bringing a single instrument (including the golden throat of Robert Plant) to the fore. Indeed, The Song Remains the Same will feel oddly familiar to anyone who's ever air-jammed in their bedroom to "Moby Dick" or the live version of "Stairway to Heaven," as it is the band's wont to slink off stage while a particular member does his thing, creating a sphere of reverence around the performer that is the apotheosis of the rock-star fantasy. Given how rarely the group consented to being filmed5, the picture would always be a precious piece of parchment6, but it's moments like these that transcend the act of archiving by elucidating the generosity of spirit which makes Led Zeppelin so accessible7 despite their fundamental pretentiousness. For posterity's sake, it's nice, too, having a record of circus acts that truly must be seen to be believed, namely Bonham beating the holy hell out of a drum kit with his bare hands and Page wielding his guitar like a phallus long before Prince came along8.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings The Song Remains the Same to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p presentation that wrests what pizzazz it can from decidedly temperamental elements. In all honesty, they probably could've tweaked it a bit more (especially with regards to blacks, which are often washed-out and chalky), but past a certain point you're just tinkering with memories, and any effort to bring a niche title like this into the HiDef realm should be applauded. With colours that pop and an impressive three-dimensionality, the concert footage fares best--and let's face it, that's what most of us are here for, anyway. On BD, the film boasts a gorgeous remaster of the original quadraphonic mix, rendered in 5.1 TrueHD, Dolby Digital, and plain old stereo. The first and second options sounded identical to me due to my antiquated receiver's downconversion of the allegedly superior TrueHD track, though that's not to say I felt cheated. If I have any quarrel with the audio, it's that crowd noises are never convincingly incorporated from the standpoint of spatial dynamics. I suspect it was always that way.
A light yet enticing helping of bonus material includes: never-before-seen performances of "Over the Hills and Far Away" (a so-called "cutting copy") and "Celebration Day" plus similarly rare outtakes of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "The Ocean," all of which were remastered in 5.1 but not HD; vintage news reports--think Ron Burgundy--on the robbery that caps the film (see endnotes) as well as the purportedly history-making Tampa stop of Led Zeppelin's 1973 tour (4 mins. and 3 mins., respectively); "Boating Down the Thames" (8 mins.), an interview with Grant and Plant conducted for "The Old Grey Whistle Test" in which the unnamed interviewer lodges complaints about the film that fall on rich, deaf ears; and The Song Remains the Same's theatrical trailer, a real curio. Originally published: March 13, 2008.
1. Watch an inverted version of this sequence unfold as a nightmare in John Landis's An American Werewolf in London. return
2. At the end of the film, neo-Col. Tom Parker Grant will be accused and accuse others of stealing $200,000 in box-office receipts from a hotel safe. It's the ironic capper on Grant's battle to keep a promoter from a collecting a comparatively negligible kickback on concert memorabilia. return
3. I've always thought this tableau obliquely inspired the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1979 LP "In Through the Out Door". return
4. Let me stop you right there: I mean before the film switches locales to Venice. return
5. This was because they refused to appear on television, citing the medium's inadequate sound. return
6. Though one wonders why they waited 'til the end of their tour to start shooting, leading to mostly lacklustre renditions of classic hits. (Only "No Quarter" comes close to honouring its prerecorded counterpart.) return
7. Witness, too, the alphabetically-ordered cast list. return
8. Which is not to deny that Page himself had been shamelessly co-opting from black artists for years. return