Passport Video // 2004 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // August 11th, 2004
A behind-the-scenes look at the Hammer of the Gods.
Very few artists can claim to be the greatest of all time. Such a ranking is even more difficult in the diverse arena of rock and roll. Music is such a personalized proclivity that for some manner of universal agreement to occur, the group or performer in question has to be something very special. For many, the Beatles represent such a benchmark, not only for the innovations and invention they brought to the popular song, but also for the cultural impact their timeless music had on society. Elvis also warrants mention, for bridging the gap between black culture and white elitism by melding R&B with gospel and country to spearhead the creation of a whole new musical art form.
Yet after you've wandered past Bob Dylan, the Ramones, the Rolling Stones, and the Clash, the pickings become very slim indeed. Certainly there are other bands and musicians, both past and present that warrant discussion and mention. Yet there is only one band that systematically gets cited whenever the concepts of heavy metal and hard-driving rock and roll are discussed. They represent the pinnacle of so many of the standards in blues-based bombast: the ethereal and enigmatic front man; the wild axe-wielding guitar god; the journeyman bass player with a genius way with arrangements; and the drummer who can shake the very layers of hell with his unbridled playing. Lasting only 12 short years (1968-1980), they are still today regarded as the benchmark by which all other metal acts are measured. For Robert Plant (vocals), Jimmy Page (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass, keyboards), and John Bonham (drums), the entire world was their stage and their immense, intense impact is still felt today. Every new rock artist wants to be Led Zeppelin, and the reasons why become clear in A to Zeppelin: The Unauthorized Story of Led Zeppelin.
For a documentary with little direct access to the band (this is "unauthorized" after all) and none of the group's signature songs to illustrate its points, A to Zeppelin still does a good, if superficial, job of presenting undoubtedly one of the best rock and roll bands of all time. Led Zeppelin charged up the charts, burned ever so brightly during their time at the top, and left while the limelight was still infinite. Though it was tragedy, not internal bickering or personality clashes, that eventually unhinged the group, their time as the reigning kings of rock and roll changed the face of music in general, and heavy metal specifically, for generations to come.
Listening to Zeppelin's albums today, one is struck by two things. First, how folkish and beautiful many of the tracks are -- indeed, A to Zeppelin is exceptional when describing how important the acoustic and lilting lyricism of this form of expression was to the band. Second, as the documentary runs through a string of sensational blues artists (Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly), it's amazing how much of Zeppelin at its heaviest is encased in this urban expression of the African American plight in the United States. One of the more valid points this interesting film makes is how influential black music was to an entire generation of post-Beatles bands -- everyone from the Stones, to the Who, to the Yardbirds (the band to which Plant belonged before Zeppelin). It is rare for a musical profile to feature influences and divergent facets of a group's sound as accurately as A to Zeppelin does, and thanks to input from band mates of Page to other famous rock and roll icons (Jeff Beck, Leslie West, Carmine Appice), the case for the importance of such reference points is cemented.
It is interesting to note that both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones began their careers as session musicians. A to Zeppelin features old audio interviews with the band members, and to hear Jim and John talk about it, they played on many of the important recordings of the swinging '60s rock scene. When close friends Robert Plant and John Bonham joined the duo in late 1968, a kind of cosmic synergy took place. Those who were present when Zeppelin was born discuss how the foursome almost immediately came together to gel into an amazing rock and roll combo. From the very beginning, we learn that Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham had a chemistry that destined their future power and accomplishment.
On the music front, we hear a lot from studio engineer Andy Johns (younger brother of famed producer Glyn), who worked with the band on several of their seminal albums, and details the guys' work ethic and prodigious playing skill. Bad Company's Simon Kirke describes the hoopla surrounding his band being the first group signed to Zeppelin's own Swan Song label, and legendary manager Peter Grant is given his due. We learn that not only was Grant famed for being a kind of cockney Suge Knight "gangsta" long before such bully tactics in the name of artistic protection were popular, but his business acumen made Led Zeppelin one of the richest bands in the world (many of the performers here acknowledge the impact he had in increasing the percentage of concert revenue bands get today). While some of the more legendary aspects of the band (underage groupies, hotel destruction, Page's obsession with black magic and Satanism) are more or less under rug swept, A to Zeppelin manages to incorporate much of what made up the band's magical mystique.
As with most measured discussions of artists' overall careers, something has to get short shrift. Sadly, in A to Zeppelin, it's the music that suffers. Understandably, an independent entity like Passport Video could not possibly afford the licensing fees to any of the band's songs, but the lack of sonic proof of the group's ability undermines some of the documentary's credibility. Also, there is much more to the makeup of Led Zeppelin than the simplistic descriptions given in this film. While we enjoy the insights and backstage stories that those around the supergroup can provide, it would have been nice to have more input from the members themselves. While Bonham is no longer with us, some present day Q&A with Page, Plant, or Jones would have been useful in getting beneath the surface. It is one of the reasons why, as entertaining as it is, the overall feeling here is one of shallowness, not specificity. Also, at only 55 minutes, the movie runs out of time toward the end, having to rush through the Physical Graffiti to In Through the Out Door phase of the band in a hurried, slapdash fashion.
Still, as a primer on the premier, if not the ultimate, band in the history of heavy metal and rock and roll, A to Zeppelin is a stunning reminder that at one time on this planet, four men used a guitar, a bass, some drums, and a cock-rocking voice to make some of the hardest, edgiest and -- yes -- most beautiful and experimental music in the brief history of popular music. Though it misses opportunities here and there, A to Zeppelin: The Unauthorized Story of Led Zeppelin is an excellent introduction to this incredible and influential rock band.
Passport Video does a very decent -- if very perfunctory -- job with the DVD presentation of A to Zeppelin. Utilizing some vintage footage as well as new video interviews, the entire transfer to film looks amazing in the 1.33:1 full screen ratio. The colors are clear and sharp and the details -- including age spots in the archival material -- come across with home theater vibrancy. The Dolby Digital Stereo is kind of flat, but at least the interviews and narrative are offered professionally, with lots of non-compressed clarity. Sadly, we are treated to a photo gallery as the only set of extras, and while the snapshots -- many from the personal collections of people close to the band -- do capture some candid moments, they don't make up for the lack of other necessary content. A discography would have been great, as well as a small bio on each band member. Since Grant is given some airtime, wouldn't it be imperative to offer some more information on who he was and his personal life? As with the documentary itself, there are several neglected prospects for added facets to the Led Zeppelin legacy that Passport fails to provide. DVD is made for digital data collection. Going barebones with a release like this is ridiculous.
Still, even with its basic, surface treatment of this phenomenal act, A to Zeppelin is worth a look. It manages to tie together both musical and cultural influences to illustrate the foundation and phenomenon that was known as Led Zeppelin. And while other acts like Guns N' Roses and Metallica have tried, no one has matched the magic, the mayhem, or the metal created by this band. They are truly one of the greatest rock and roll acts of all time.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* IMDb: Led Zeppelin
* Led Zeppelin Official Site
* Led Zeppelin: Electric Magic