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Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same (Blu-ray) (1976)

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For lovers or big-screen rock excess, the late ’70s was the absolute golden era. For whatever reason, during that period Hollywood became obsessed with bringing music to the box office masses, and unleashed an avalanche of ridiculously conceived pop spectacles starring a bizarre cross-section of performers that had no business getting anywhere near the silver screen. On any given weekend, bumping shoulders (and grinding pelvises) at the local multiplex were acts as disparate as the Village People (‘Can’t Stop the Music’), ELO (‘Xanadu’), the Bee-Gees and Peter Frampton (‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’) and even Sweden’s biggest music export, ABBA (the immortal ‘ABBA: The Movie’). It was a virtual cinematic car crash, with one spectacular disaster after another going down in flames.

It’s surprising in hindsight, but rock gods Led Zeppelin somehow got caught up in all of this hysteria, and in 1976 they released their own big-screen epic ‘The Song Remains the Same.’ Part concert movie, part “dramatic interpretation’ of their music, it’s not jaw-droppingly awful on the level of, say, a ‘Xanadu’ (this is the Zeppelin, after all, not ELO), but the movie is ill-conceived enough that you have to wonder what the Led boys were thinking. Were rock egos that big in the ’70s that a top act like this thought it prudent to appear in something this grandiose and pretentious?

According to the film’s original promotional materials, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ was intended to be “…the band’s special way of giving their millions of friends what they had been clamoring for — a personal and private tour of Led Zeppelin.” The end product, however, turned out just a little bit different. Originally conceived as a straight-ahead concert film, the bulk of the movie was shot during a three-night stint at Madison Square Garden during the band’s hugely successful 1973 world tour. Unfortunately, much of the material turned out so poorly that it was virtually unusable, and the band was also unhappy with many of its performances. So the the film’s producers hastily came up with a solution — scrap most of the movie (including firing the original director, Joe Massot, and replacing him with Peter Clifton) and reconfigure it from top to bottom as a more traditional narrative, albeit with some concert performances spliced in.

Suffering from all of the bloated pomposity of the ’70s “prog-rock” era, the “dramatic” segueways added to ‘The Song Remains the Same’ are virtually interminable. After a long opening sequence of the band arriving by plane (that sets up some forgettable plot about a robbery — yawn), we’re treated to a series of downright loony “fantasy” interludes that are supposed to give us insight into the personalities of each of the band members. There’s John Paul Jones, reading “Jack and the Beanstalk” to his daughters. John Bonham drag racing to the tune of “Moby Dick.” Jimmy Page climbing a snow-capped mountain in search of a hermit (seriously, I’m not kidding). And Robert Plant getting to ride a horse across a wind-swept landscape, his flowing locks making him look like a lost hippie Prince from an abandoned Disney theme park ride. It’s all meant to “symbolize” something, but in such an overt and heavy-handed way that it inspires laughter more than profundity.

Thankfully, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ also features concert performances of nearly a dozen classic Led Zeppelin tunes, and that’s the reason to see the film. Although the band would subsequently reshoot some of the close-ups and other insert shots on a soundstage (leading to a few glaring continuity errors), it is these scenes that prove without a doubt that Zeppelin is arguably the greatest hard rock band in history. During the 1973 tour the were often at the peak of their powers, and indeed few other acts can touch them even now. The interaction of the band members achieves an intensity that borders on the orgiastic at times, and moments in “Black Dog,” Whole Lotta Love” and of course “Stairway to Heaven” deliver genuine goosebumps.

Unfortunately, one must still endure a great deal of self-indulgent dreck in order to enjoy those moments of musical nirvana. Die hard Zeppelin fans won’t need any arm-twisting, of course, but if you’re only a casual admirer of the band — or you’re still confused as to what all the fuss is about — you may find your finger twitching on the remote’s fast-forward button through a good portion of the film’s runtime. Watched as a greatest hits collection of concert performances, ‘The Song Remains the Same’ is absolutely essential. As a piece of rock cinema, however, it’s a pretty miserable failure.

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February 21, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin The Song Remains The Same DVD | ,

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