40 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Become Movie Stars
Led Zeppelin were one of the undeniably great live acts of the 70s, whose shows were a rock ‘n’ roll celebration of equal parts spectacle, music and delirious over-the-top excess. But many fans and critics felt that the group missed the mark with the concert film The Song Remains the Same, which made its premiere in New York City on Oct. 20, 1976.
Zeppelin had been trying to shoot a concert movie since early in their career, even capturing a show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970. But the material was judged sub-par and shelved (although that footage would later emerge as the 2003 DVD release Led Zeppelin). In 1973, Zeppelin manager Peter Grant struck a deal with filmmaker Joe Massot, who had just days to pull together a crew before the group embarked on its North American tour.
Massot filmed Led Zeppelin in a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden from July 27-29 and also shot the band members disembarking from their plane in Baltimore and in a limousine cavalcade in Pittsburgh. In addition, Massot captured Grant, a notorious bully, directing a stream of profanity at a concert promoter he felt was ripping off the band, as well as news footage of an incident in which money belonging to Led Zeppelin was stolen from a safe at the Drake Hotel.
After the initial footage was complete, Grant replaced Massot with director Peter Clifton, who had the group re-stage the entire show at Shepperton Studios in England to deal with continuity issues. The movie was finally released 18 months past schedule and over budget, but went on to become a box-office success, earning $200,000 in its first week of release.
Despite that, critics derided much of the film as self-indulgent, particularly the fantasy sequences that featured Jimmy Page seeking out the Hermit from a Tarot deck, Robert Plant as a knight, John Paul Jones in a chase on horseback, John Bonham drag racing and Grant and tour manager Richard Cole as gangsters.
The film didn’t do justice to Zeppelin’s legendary live reputation, partly because of the way it was filmed and edited. Sections like the long drum solo in “Moby Dick” or Page’s atonal guitar bowing in “Dazed and Confused” were exciting live, but long and boring on film, further fueling the notion of the movie as self-indulgent. The band members themselves were publicly dismissive of their performance, feeling that they could have done better.
Still, for many years The Song Remains the Same was the only official live footage available of Led Zeppelin, and the film became a cult classic, a staple of midnight movies and early rock video television channels. It still stands as a testament to both the greatness, and the excesses of the era.
Page and producer Kevin Shirley worked together on a 2007 reissue of the film that contained additional restored footage from the original 1973 performances.
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