Judge Victor Valdivia claims to be musically adventurous, but ends up listening to the same two songs over and over.
Robert Plant's journey through the territories that have most acutely inspired his music.
MVD Visual's unauthorized music DVDs are such a step above those of any other label that it can be easy to forgive their excesses. Robert Plant's Blue Note clocks in at an astounding 157 minutes. At times, does sometimes seem like a bit of a slog. Nonetheless, if you stick with it you will rewarded with some genuine insights and great music you may never have heard. It actually does a good job of examining Plant's musical career without either rehashing his time in Led Zeppelin or devolving into pointless speculation. You may have to watch it in short spurts but the best parts, of which there are many, make this one the better DVDs in MVD's catalogue.
The obvious comparison is to The Man Who Fell To Earth, MVD's unauthorized DVD bio of Brian Eno. Like this DVD, that one also took two-and-a-half hours and examined an influential and important artist's music. The key difference, however, is that the Eno DVD only covered five years and thus was overlong and overwrought. This DVD covers Plant's entire musical career, from his teenage bands to his most recent works with Nashville session musicians in 2010. What's more, Plant's solo career, unlike Eno's, has never really been examined in much detail, even though in many ways it's been arguably the most adventurous and ambitious of any British rock superstar apart from Peter Gabriel. Neither Mick Jagger nor Roger Daltrey nor (sad to say) Jimmy Page have ever released albums as diverse and fascinating as The Principle of Moments (1983), Now and Zen (1988), Mighty Rearranger (2006), and Raising Sand (2007), his collaboration with bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss. These albums range from electronic world music to guitar-driven blues-rock to straight-up traditional country. The only thing they have in common is Plant's voice and his stubborn refusal to rest on his laurels as Led Zeppelin's front man. It would have been easy for Plant to assemble a band that merely rehashed Zep's sound (as, sad to say, Zep guitarist Jimmy Page has done at times) but instead, he has consistently explored different sounds and styles that appeal to him, even if that sometimes results in albums that hardcore Zep fans might find confusing or challenging.
What Robert Plant's Blue Note does right is examine Plant's musical history by examining his biggest influences. That may sound academic but it isn't, partly because Plant's influences are so radically diverse and also because the DVD examines each of them with respect and authority. There are rare film and audio clips of such artists as Mali group Tinariwen, Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, and Delta blues singer Son House. Here MVD Visual's policy of spending the necessary money to license key pieces of music pays off handsomely, as it makes it easy to hear how Oum Kalthoum's music and singing shaped Plant's "Slow Dancer" (from his 1982 solo album Pictures At Eleven) or how Plant's fascination with Eastern music influenced Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Refreshingly, Plant's time in Led Zeppelin is discussed but isn't the main focus of the DVD. The band's story has told so many times in so many places that a mere retelling would have been a waste of effort. Instead, the DVD wisely focuses on how Plant's musical adventurism, from his earliest days in his pre-Zep bands to his time in Zeppelin to his solo career, has always been the driving force in how he creates music. It also makes clear that Plant was more than just Zep's singer—he was every bit a valuable collaborator with Jimmy Page. It's just one of many ways that the DVD adds plenty to the existing lore on Led Zeppelin.
Another reason this DVD is worth seeing is that the insights and discussion of how Plant came up with his solo albums are both superb. There are clips of an interview with Plant from 2010 that provide some context but there are also great interviews with Plant's closest musical collaborators, such as guitarist Robbie Blunt, producer Phil Johnstone, and Egyptian singer Hossam Ramzy. All have plenty to say about Plant's solo albums and his brief reunion with Page in the '90s, describing how those albums were written and recorded. The discussions of Plant's solo work makes it possible not only to reassess these albums that were sometimes underrated when they were released, but also to see that there really is a common thread that runs through all of them. The footage of some great though unheralded (in the West, at least) artists, particularly those scenes of Plant collaborating with them, is so absorbing that you'll be intrigued and want to make a list of new music to explore and listen to.
Robert Plant's Blue Note, then, is a valuable release, and not just for Led Zeppelin fans. It serves as a welcome chance to rediscover the roots and influences of a performer who, for all his fame and fortune, is too often underrated. The documentary is too long by about a third, but it's not because any one section is unnecessary, just that each section could stand a bit of pruning and editing. Even then, however, the footage of some truly remarkable Eastern artists and classic bluesmen is a feast for anyone looking to expand their musical horizons. Viewers unfamiliar with Plant's story might want to get a quick overview (see Accomplices section) before watching it but once they do, those who are patient and open-minded will find plenty to enjoy here.
The full-screen transfer and stereo sound mix are both satisfactory, although some of the archival footage does look and sound a bit rough. The only extra of note is a collection of bonus footage (5:52) that examines Plant's affection for legendary bluesman Leadbelly. It's of minor interest. There are also text bios of each of the interviewees.
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