Spend a warm evening in the psychotropics.
A cult classic of midnight movies and laser shows from the '70s comes to DVD. While not the best work of Led Zeppelin, it's the only live concert footage we have, and it's pretty good. A dizzyingly surreal mix of psychedelic effects, fantasy sequences, scenes of home and family, and a 1973 concert at Madison Square Garden, it begs the question "What the heck were we wearing back then?"
I've been an acolyte of Led Zeppelin for many years, really ever since they hit the musical scene in 1969. There are a few of their songs that I've probably performed more than they have over the years when I was doing covers. Led Zeppelin was an extremely influential band, and one of the most popular ever. A few lesser-known facts: Zeppelin is one of only three artists/groups to have four releases go Diamond, or over 10 million sales; the other two are the Beatles and Garth Brooks. Led Zeppelin broke attendance records in many venues formerly held by the Beatles as well. 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.
Led Zeppelin were truly pioneers of the genre of hard rock, often called classic rock now. Born from the ashes of the Yardbirds, they combined crushingly loud interpretations of blues with a myriad of other musical influences such as British folk, and reggae, and drew upon mysticism and mythology for its material. An unsubstantiated rumor that persists is their name came from someone telling them early on their act would "sink like a lead balloon." But their debut album, recorded in less than 30 hours, and promoted heavily by American and British tours, hit the top ten; and every other album since was number one for varying amounts of time.
In 1973, with their "Houses of the Holy" tour, they were one of the top bands in the world, and the concert for this film was shot. Fantasy sequences, shots in outdoor locations, scenes of home and family were shot later, and the film was released to lukewarm reviews in 1976. Hard-core Zep fans kept it alive though, by flocking to theatres for midnight showings, and to various planetariums for laser light shows done to combine with the film. I attended a couple of these showings in the late '70s, and they were always a party atmosphere, with the volume turned up louder than many theater owners were comfortable with. Voluminous clouds of pot smoke billowed in the air. I'll have to admit that a critical review of Song Remains the Same wasn't really possible since everyone was high as a kite during these showings.
So now, 20 odd years later I have the film in my house, sans the psychotropic enhancement. First I'll do my best to cover the film and concert, then the disc. I said I'd do my best since the quality of the filming and concert are all over the board; ranging from very nice to mediocre. The concert itself was shot at the end of a long, grueling tour, and the band looked tired. They themselves admitted as much and said that it wasn't nearly their best performance. I can testify to that, since other live recordings, such as the BBC Sessions, were of much higher quality. The band didn't really want to release this concert footage as part of the film, but were contractually obligated to. Even at their least though, the band showed quite a lot of energy, and some of the tracks, such as "Since I've Been Loving You" and "Stairway to Heaven" were memorable. Jimmy Page, the incredibly talented guitarist, really shone, and his use of a violin bow with his guitar showed actual genius at times. John Bonham gave a drum solo in "Moby Dick" where he went to his bare hands and fingertips for part of it, and is one of the most unusual and intricate solos I've yet heard.
Interspersed with the concert footage were scenes of home, which were quite nice and shot well, and the quality of the video was at it's best. Each band member, along with their manager Peter Grant, were given a fantasy sequence. They ran the gambit from a mob rub-out (confusing as the first thing you see) to a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, lots of horseback riding in beautiful locales (Scotland I think), to pure psychedelic chaos. Behind the scenes dramatizations of events were 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. I guess they never heard of American Express back then.
The concert itself was shot as another 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."
The video on this disc is an anamorphic widescreen transfer, in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There is little dirt or nicks to mar the original film stock, and little pixelation or artifacts, though I did see some. 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 here; 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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm sure you're wondering how the disc sounds, since music is at its core. 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 very 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.
On the plus side of the audio, everything is intelligible, and with the exception of the 6.0 track imaging was acceptable. If you're willing to turn it up loud enough, it gives the concert feel. If your receiver has DSPs like Rock Concert, it helps quite a bit as well.
The concert itself is not without things to dislike. Although it does contain some of the best guitar work by Page, the Dazed and Confused number goes through several chapters and lasts something like 27 minutes; which is just a bit too much dazing and confusing for anyone.
On the subject of extras, it is criminally lacking. The disc actually has listing 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 pretty close to whatever you wanted to see.
I do have to give this somewhat of a reviewer's tilt for nostalgia value. I think it's worth having, especially for Zeppelin fans, in fact for those it's a must buy. For those less familiar with them, try listening to their CDs first. It does only retail for $19.95, and is available for less, so it's not too bad for a gamble. If you consider this a documentary rather than as a concert performance, the ratings go up.
Jimmy Page has recently stated that he thinks DVD is the format to use for unearthing their archives, and we can hope that better sounding recordings and concert footage will be forthcoming. "Someone" told me, and he knows who he is, that they would be releasing a double live DVD special edition complete with a hand carved pipe and a quarter bag of the good stuff. I'll bet that one would sell a lot better. Don't believe it though, because I never said it.
Led Zeppelin is sentenced to getting into their vaults and getting the best of their footage and recordings onto DVD at the first opportunity, and doing complete remasters into 5.1 surround. Warner is warned that a listing of the band members without biography is not a special feature, and is admonished to add value to its music releases, even ones that would have been cheap and easy to do such as a still library and lyrics.
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