by Heath Holland
The Song Remains the Same is a mess of a movie, but it’s a likable mess, at least for me. The overly-ambitious concert/documentary/fantasy film attempts to combine the bombastic power of a Led Zeppelin concert with softer footage that includes weird dream-like segments and quiet moments of the band members at home, far from the blazing lights of the stage. In an industry filled with self-important posturing, Led Zeppelin’s only theatrical feature film manages to somehow be even more pretentious than any of their peers, though it does serve to sum up the band nicely. The film itself is occasionally interesting, but the story behind it is fascinating.
The bulk of the picture consists of concert footage that was filmed over three nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Here the band played before thousands of eager fans and churned out live performances of their biggest hits and best material during the tail-end of a 1973 tour leg. This footage from Madison Square Garden was captured by director Joe Massot, the filmmaker behind 1968’s Wonderwall, for which Beatle George Harrison provided the music. After Zeppelin’s MSG footage was reviewed, however, it was deemed by the band and their staff to be mostly unusable and impossible to edit, and this is where things get really interesting. The decision was made to sack Massot as the director, give him a severance of a few thousand pounds, and then to bring in an Australian rock documentarian, Peter Clifton.
In other fantasy segments, bassist John Paul Jones rides a horse in a scarecrow mask, a reference to Dr. Syn, the Disney movie. Singer Robert Plant’s fantasy shows him as a medieval knight (or maybe a Tolkien character) rescuing a lady and swashbuckling it up at a Welsh castle, though, he keeps his real sword in his pants. John Bonham’s fantasy segment tellingly has him at home with his family, just being a dad and a husband.
There had been plans to record more concert footage in 1975, but Robert Plant was in a serious car accident that limited his performance ability for almost two years, scrapping any hopes for additional concert material to be captured. Still, I also get the feeling that this project could have stretched on for years and years, never completed, always under construction. The eventual release feels to me like everyone involved throwing up their hands and giving up. Jimmy Page himself has referred to the end product as showing “warts and all.” The viewer gets the impression that The Song Remains the Same is not quite the end product that was initially conceived.
Maybe because it’s such a bizarre mix of what feels like amateur filmmaking married to undeniably potent music, The Song Remains the Same ironically offers an accurate look at Led Zeppelin during this time period. The music is there, but so is the mystical, larger-than-life pretense that seemed to be a hallmark of the band. You won’t that find mythological force field surrounding bands like The Rolling Stones or The Who. Though they hid behind makeup, KISS always allowed us to be in on the fun. Even Pink Floyd feels more approachable and human than Led Zeppelin, who always seemed to hold the audience at arm’s length, wielding the hammer of the gods and behaving like rock royalty. Appropriately, you’d be hard pressed to find a more hedonistic and self-serving concert film than The Song Remains the Same. But for a band like Led Zeppelin, that seems just about right.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!