Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Song Remains the Same (1976) * * ¾

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME is a musical documentary of the hard rock band Led Zeppelin filmed over three nights at New York City's Madison Square Garden in July 1973, but not released theatrically until 1976. Born from the ashes of the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin combined loud blues with other music such as rock, folk and reggae, and drew upon mysticism and mythology for its material. Considered founders of the genre known as "heavy metal", Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham mesmerize with classic live performances of many of their great songs.

Captured during their tour to promote the "Houses of the Holy" album, they give many fine performances, and the film detours into the lives of the band members. There are clips of the band back stage, as well as interesting "dream sequences" that show the band members in either their real lives or in alternate fantasy worlds. Mostly it's garish and silly, but there are some nice elements, especially insights into John Bonham's life. It's amazing to see Robert Plant atop a galloping black stallion with his luxuriously long blond hair whipping in the breeze.

A cult classic of midnight movies and laser shows from the 1970s, the cinematography does not stick to straightforward images. Concert angles go from straight shots of the whole band, to Robert Plant singing from an under the stage perspective, to a close-up of Jimmy Page making magic. Arguably the best rock band in the world throughout their 12-year reign, they remain one of the most influential and innovative groups in music history. With over 200 million albums sold worldwide, their catalogue is one of the most enduring bodies of musical composition to come out of the 20th century. Led Zeppelin is one of only three artists/groups to have four releases go Diamond, or over 10 million records sold. Their debut album, recorded in less than 30 hours, hit the top ten and every other album since reached number one. The actually untitled "Led Zeppelin IV" is one of the biggest selling recordings of all time, with over 16 and a half million sales to date. Their total sales number over 80 million, second only to the Beatles.

Despite the group's road weariness after a long tour, their final three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1973 was full of energy and power. The band admitted to being tired, said that it wasn't nearly their best performance, and they didn't want to release this concert footage as part of the film, but were contractually obligated to. The songs performed are nonetheless terrific, but unfortunately we don't get an unbroken performance here. Viewers have to wade through a mishmash of documentary insight into the band members' lives.

The concert was shot as a psychedelic experience. Cameras shifted, spun, and turned. Virtually every visual effect possible during the age was used to further create a surreal experience. Lighting was usually colored, often multi-colored, as you might expect from a rock concert. Perhaps the best use of lighting was the golden halo given to singer Robert Plant during "Stairway to Heaven". Jimmy Page uses a violin bow with his guitar during a 23-minute-long version of "Dazed and Confused". John Bonham has a drum solo in "Moby Dick" where he uses his bare hands and fingertips for part of it, one of the most unusual and intricate drum solos ever recorded.

Fantasy sequences, shots in outdoor locations, and scenes of home and family were shot later. Interspersed with the concert footage, the home scenes are a bit distracting. Each band member, along with their manager Peter Grant, were given a fantasy sequence. They run the gambit from a confusing mob rub-out to a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, lots of horseback riding in beautiful locales, to pure psychedelic chaos. The first is of Peter Grant, dressed in a 1930s black gangster suit, who drives a black 1928 Pierce-Arrow to a house and blasts everyone with a machine gun. Behind the scenes dramatizations of events were also shot later, and included the fact that nearly a quarter million dollars in cash was stolen from the hotel safe the last night of the tour.

Since late 1969, Led Zeppelin had been planning to film one of their live performances for a projected movie documentary of the band. The group's manager, Peter Grant, believed that they would be better served by the big screen than by television, because he regarded the sound quality of the latter as unsatisfactory. The first attempt was the filming Led Zeppelin's Royal Albert Hall performance on 9 January 1970 by Peter Whitehead and Stanley Dorfman. But the lighting was judged to be mediocre, and the film was shelved. This footage was later remastered and featured on the 2003 release Led Zeppelin DVD.

On the morning of 20 July 1973, during the band's concert tour of the United States, Peter Grant made a contact with Joe Massot, who had previously directed George Harrison's WONDERWALL (1968). Massot was already known to Grant as he and his wife had moved into a house in Berkshire in 1970, where they made friends with their neighbors, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and his girlfriend Charlotte Martin. Grant had previously turned down offers by Massot to make a film of the band, but with the huge success of the band's current tour, Grant changed his mind and offered him the job of director. Grant recalled: "It all started in the Sheraton Hotel, Boston. We'd talked about a film for years and Jimmy had known Joe Massot was interested--so we called them and over they came. It was all very quickly arranged."

Joe Massot quickly assembled a crew in time for Led Zeppelin's last leg of the tour starting on 23 July 1973, in Baltimore. He subsequently filmed the group's three concert performances at Madison Square Garden on the nights of 27, 28, and 29 of July 1973. The film was entirely financed by the band and shot on 35mm with a 24-track quadraphonic sound recording. The live footage in the US alone cost $85,000. Plans to film the shows at Madison Square Garden were threatened when the local trades union tried to block the British film crew from working. The band's attorneys negotiated with the union and the crew was eventually allowed to film the concerts.

The footage of the band arriving at the airport in their private jet airliner, The Starship, and traveling in the motor cavalcade to the concert was filmed in Pittsburgh, before their show at Three Rivers Stadium on 24 July 1973. For their three NYC performances, the band members wore exactly the same clothes to facilitate seamless editing of the film, except for John Paul Jones who wore three different sets of attire on each of these nights, which created continuity problems. In an interview in 1997 Jones said that the reason he didn't wear the same stage clothes was that he asked the crew if they would be filming on those nights and was told no. He said, "I'd think not to worry, I'll save the shirt I wore the previous night for the next filming. Then what would happen is that I'd get onstage and see the cameras ready to roll."

Peter Grant was notorious for being protective of his band and their finances. THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME captures an exchange between him and a concert promoter. In the scene, Grant uses the words "f**k" and "c**t" eighteen times. When Warner Bros. approved the film they insisted that these words be 'bleeped' out. The words were inaudible on the submitted film and it was given an appropriate rating. However, on every other print the words were retained and were fully audible

In the scene where Peter Grant is driven to the police station to be questioned about the theft from the safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel, he has his arm outside the police car. According to an interview conducted in 1989, he explained the reason he wasn't handcuffed was that the policeman driving the car used to be a drummer in a semi-professional band which had supported The Yardbirds on one of its US college tours in the late 1960s. Grant was the manager of The Yardbirds at that time. The money stolen from the safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel was never recovered and no one has ever been charged.

The scenes of police chasing a half-naked intruder and of Grant berating the promoter for receiving kickbacks were both shot at the Baltimore Civic Center on 23 July 1973. Grant purportedly recommended the "Dazed and Confused" sequence where the camera zooms into Jimmy Page's eyes and cuts to the fantasy scene.

Unhappy with the progress of the film, Grant had Joe Massot removed from the project and Australian director Peter Clifton was hired in his place in early 1974. Massot was offered a few thousand pounds in compensation. Peter Grant later sent someone to Massot's house to collect the film. However, Massot had hidden the film elsewhere and so instead an expensive editing machine owned by Massot was taken as collateral. Massot served a writ, leading to a period of stalemate which was finally broken when Grant and Led Zeppelin's lawyer Steve Weiss agreed to pay Massot the money he was owed, after which he delivered the film to the band. Massot was not invited to attend the premiere of the film at New York but he attended anyway, buying a ticket from a scalper outside the theater.

Peter Clifton, in recognizing that there were crucial holes in the concert footage, suggested that the entire show be recreated at Shepperton Studios in August 1974, on a mock-up of the Madison Square Garden stage. Close-ups and distance footage of the band members could then be slipped into the live sequences, which made up the bulk of the concert footage seen in the film. The other reason for re-shooting some of the "live" concert was to improve the performances. Led Zeppelin was a great live band, but better in the studio. Robert Plant could only hit his high notes in a studio. Neither the performances nor the music in this film can be considered authentic, because everything has definitely been improved in the studio. When it was agreed that the band would meet at Shepperton Studios for filming, Jones had recently had his hair cut short, so he had to wear a wig. Robert Plant's teeth had also been fixed between the 1973 and 1974 filmings.

In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page recalled the events surrounding the shooting of additional footage at Shepperton Studios: "I'm sort of miming at Shepperton to what I'd played at Madison Square Garden, but of course, although I've got a rough approximation of what I was playing from night to night, it's not exact. So the film that came out in the '70s is a bit warts-and-all."

For both the film and accompanying soundtrack album, the songs were heavily edited, and until both the film and album were re-released in 2007, in some cases versions of a song appearing in the film were different from the one heard on the album. A comprehensive study of how the audio sources for each song were edited is available at The Garden Tapes. Songs performed by the group at the three Madison Square Garden concerts but not included in the original film include "Celebration Day", "The Ocean", "Misty Mountain Hop", "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Thank You". Some of these songs were included on the soundtrack album of the film and, later, on the Led Zeppelin DVD.

Following the film's completion, the band experienced a major falling out with Peter Clifton. Suspecting that he had stolen negatives of the film, Peter Grant ordered that his house be searched. They did find some footage, but this turned out to be a collection of the best "home movie" footage which Clifton had intended to give to the band members as a gift. Clifton was also annoyed at the decision to remove from the film's credits the names of all the people who had worked on editing, make up and effects. Unlike Massot, however, Clifton was invited to both the New York and London premieres of the film.

In 1976 a midnight screening of the film was organized by Atlantic Records prior to its release, at which label president Ahmet Erteg√ľn reportedly fell asleep. The film was finally completed by early 1976, 18 months behind schedule and over-budget. Peter Grant quipped, "It was the most expensive home movie ever made."

The film premiered on 20 October 1976, at Cinema I in New York and at Warner West End Cinema in London two weeks later. Reviews were lukewarm. Promotional materials stated that the film was "the band's special way of giving their millions of friends what they had been clamouring for--a personal and private tour of Led Zeppelin. For the first time the world has a front row seat on Led Zeppelin." The film was accompanied by the release of a soundtrack album of the same name.

The film performed well at the box office, grossing $200,000 in its first week, and an estimated $10 million by 1977. Despite this, the film received poor reviews from critics for its perceived amateurish production and self-indulgent content, with the fantasy sequences in particular coming in for some of the harshest criticism. The film was particularly unsuccessful in the UK, where the band had not performed live for over two years as a result of being in tax exile. The band were thus unable to promote themselves at home, leaving them out of the public spotlight. However, among fans the film has retained its popularity, largely because until the release of the Led Zeppelin DVD in 2003, THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME was the only official live visual document that followers of the band were able to access. It became a cult favorite at late-night movie houses, and its subsequent release on video and then DVD has ensured a growing base of fans.

Fantasy Sequences:

* Peter Grant and Richard Cole were filmed as hitmen driving towards Hammerwood Park estate in Sussex in a 1928 Pierce-Arrow car. Roy Harper makes an uncredited guest appearance as one of the greedy millionaires portrayed at a business meeting of multi-national corporations. Massot envisioned Grant and Cole in the hitman roles, as it symbolized the tough business decisions they made on behalf of the band. The female passenger wearing a scarf with Peter Grant driving on a country road is his wife, Gloria. Massot had originally shot Grant walking a cameraman around a collection of antique cars, but this footage was quickly abandoned.

* John Paul Jones was filmed first at home with his wife Mo, and reading "Jack and the Beanstalk" to his two daughters, Tamara and Jacinda, before receiving a call to join the band on their American concert. For his fantasy sequence, Jones initially wished to use footage from the DOCTOR SYN (1963) film, but was prevented from doing so as this film was owned by Disney. Instead, his fantasy sequence involved a reinterpretation of the film. Jones portrays a masked gentleman known as "The Scarecrow", who travels at night on horseback with three others and returns home to Sussex, an ordinary family man. The three other horsemen with him are a reference to the other band members. Jimmy Page's girlfriend, Charlotte Martin, and baby daughter Scarlet Page can be briefly seen during the closing moments of this sequence, which was filmed in October 1973. The fantasy accompanies the song "No Quarter".

* Robert Plant was captured relaxing on his Welsh country farm with his wife Maureen, and children Karac and Carmen. His fantasy sequence involves him being a knight rescuing a fair maiden, played by Virginia Parker, who is a symbolic representation for his vision of the ideal--his personal search for the Holy Grail. Scenes from the sword fight were filmed at Raglan Castle in Wales while the sailing, horseback riding and beach scenes were shot at Aberdovey then Merionethshire and now Gwynedd, in October 1973. The fantasy accompanies "The Song Remains the Same" and "The Rain Song".

* Jimmy Page is filmed sitting by a lake next to his 18th century manor at Plumpton, East Sussex, playing a hurdy gurdy. The tune played is called "Autumn Lake" and the scene was filmed in October 1973. Page's fantasy role involved climbing up the face of a snow capped mountain near Boleskine House, Loch Ness during the nights of a full moon on December 10 and 11, 1973.The act was meant to show Page on a quest of self enlightenment, and deep understanding, by seeking out the Hermit, a character featured in the Tarot deck. The mythological Hermit is seen on the summit of the mountain; Staff of wisdom in one hand, and in the other, the Lantern of Knowledge held out abreast over the world below. Being a Threshold Guardian, he represents an obstacle the seeker must overcome to achieve true enlightenment. At the final culmination of Page's quest, he reaches out to touch The Hermit only to discover paradoxically, that he himself is the Hermit.The Hermit features on the artwork or the untitled fourth album. The fantasy accompanies the song "Dazed and Confused".

* John Bonham was shot with his wife Pat and son Jason Bonham on their country estate, Old Hyde Farm in Worcestershire. It is interesting to note that part of his fantasy includes him spending time at home with his family. Bonham was known for falling into deep depressions while on tour away from his family. His heavy drinking, which ultimately resulted in his death, is partly attributed to his homesickness. The game of snooker was shot at The Old Hyde Hotel and the Harley-Davidson riding near Blackpool. His fantasy sequence is the most straightforward of all the members, with Bonham drag racing an AA Fueler at 260mph at Santa Pod Raceway, Wellingborough, Northants, UK, in October 1973. The fantasy accompanies "Moby Dick".

The cast includes: John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Peter Grant, Richard Cole, Derek Skilton, Colin Rigdon, Jason Bonham, Patricia Bonham, Roy Harper, Carmen Plant, Karac Plant, and Maureen Plant. Peter Clifton and Joe Massot directed.

Page stated: "THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME is not a great film, but there's no point in making excuses. It's just a reasonably honest statement of where we were at that particular time. It's very difficult for me to watch it now, but I'd like to see it in a year's time just to see how it stands up."

Page made good on his promise. When reviewing material for the Led Zeppelin DVD in 2003, he decided to include footage from this same series of concerts. However, other members of the band were less charitable, with Jones later admitting that the film was "a massive compromise" and Plant denouncing it as "a load of bollocks." For all of its technical faults, many today view the film as an interesting historical document that captured the band at a particular point in time when its popularity was about to peak, and, on a more general level, as an accurate representation of the excesses of the music and show-business industries in the 1970s.

The DVD of the film was released on December 31, 1999. It contains an anamorphic widescreen transfer with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There is little dirt or nicks to mar the original film stock, and little pixelization or artifacts. Colors are bright and flesh tones are fine when the colored lighting hasn't turned them blue or red. Shadows are a bit of a problem. Seeing dark objects against a light background tend to be swallowed into one silhouette looking muddy mess. Otherwise black levels are deep and inky. Imaging ran the gambit from sharp and focused to soft and muddy, though overall was more than adequate.

Although it comes with several audio tracks, including Dolby Digital 2.0, 2.0 analog, PCM, and analog 6.0, reviews are very mixed. None of them gave the type of head-banging thunder you'd want to have watching a Zeppelin concert. I had high hopes for the 6.0 track, which I had to scrounge more cables to hear, but it was muddier than the 2.0 channels, with little use of surrounds. The best two were the PCM and Digital 2.0 tracks, which gave an adequate soundstage across the front, again with little for the surrounds. The subwoofer was utilized throughout but didn't have the punch I wanted. Even the mob rubout scene where machine guns are being fired was underwhelming. It took quite a bit of volume to give Bonham's drums the kick I wanted. There are also one or two dropouts of volume early in the concert footage. Extras are lacking. The disc actually lists the band members, without biography, as a special feature. The only other content is a British theatrical trailer. There are 26 chapter stops at least, which will get you close to whatever you want to see. Jimmy Page has stated that DVD is the format to use for unearthing their archives, and lets hope that better sounding recordings and concert footage will be forthcoming.

On November 20, 2007 Warner Home Video released a new DVD edition of THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME for the first time with all fifteen songs from the original Madison Square Garden concerts. This coincided with the reissue of the accompanying soundtrack to the film, available on CD. The DVD features newly remixed and remastered sound, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, and includes more than 40 minutes of added bonus material, including never-before-released performance footage of "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Celebration Day", plus performances of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "The Ocean", a rare 1976 BBC interview with Robert Plant and Peter Grant, vintage TV footage from the Drake Hotel robbery during the New York concert stand, and a Cameron Crowe radio show. This version was released on standard DVDs as well as Blu-Ray and HD DVD.

A Collector's Edition box set including a T-shirt with the original album cover, placards from the New York shows, and several glossy photographs was released as well. Due to legal complications, the band decided not to change the video portion of the original movie for the re-release. Instead, sound engineer Kevin Shirley created an entirely new mix of the three 1973 Madison Square Garden concerts so that the audio portion of the film would better match the on-screen visuals. The audio on the new CD release is nearly identical to the soundtrack of the new DVD release. One difference is that the songs included on the CDs that were not featured in the original movie are included as bonus tracks on the DVD. The T-Shirt is what holds the DVDs and the extras in the box, which is very thin cardboard. Take the T-Shirt out and you have a large space in the box where the DVDs rattle around.

DISC 1 (Full Feature Concert Performances)

* "Bron-Yr-Aur"
* "Rock and Roll"
* "Black Dog"
* "Since I’ve Been Loving You"
* "No Quarter"
* "The Song Remains the Same"
* "The Rain Song"
* "Dazed and Confused"
* "Stairway to Heaven"
* "Moby Dick"
* "Heartbreaker"
* "Whole Lotta Love"


* Tampa News Report (Airplane Footage of the arrival of the band from the PULSE in Tampa Florida)
* "Over The Hills and Far Away" (never-before-released)
* Boating Down The Thames - Interview with Robert Plant & Peter Grant – BBC vintage footage
* "Celebration Day" (Cutting Copy; never-before-released)
* The Robbery (interview with Peter Grant- vintage footage)
* "Misty Mountain Hop"
* Original Film Trailer
* "The Ocean"
* Radio Profile Spotlight by Cameron Crowe (1976)

DVD Scene Listing:

1) Mob Rubout
2) Mob Town Credits
3) Country Life ("Autumn Lake")
4) "Bron-Yr-Aur"
5) "Rock and Roll"
6) "Black Dog"
7) "Since I've Been Loving You"
8) "No Quarter"
9) Who's Responsible?
10) "The Song Remains the Same"
11) "The Rain Song"
12) Fire and Sword
13) Capturing the Castle
14) Not Quite Backstage Pass
15) "Dazed and Confused"
16) Strung Out
17) Magic in the Night
18) Gate Crasher
19) No Comment
20) "Stairway to Heaven"
21) "Moby Dick"
22) Country Squire Bonham
23) "Heartbreaker"
24) Grand Theft
25) "Whole Lotta Love"
26) End Credits ("Stairway to Heaven")

Blog Archive