Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page didn’t hold back in detailing why the band has refused to participate in a single documentary until now.
Bernard MacMahon’s “Becoming Led Zeppelin” premieres at the Venice Film Festival Saturday afternoon, and tickets for all 12 press and public screenings of the film have sold out — easily making it one of the most sought-after movies at the fest. Part of the film’s appeal is its rarity, given the band has never taken part in a film apart from “The Song Remains the Same” (1976), which was more of a concert movie.
Page, the only band member to attend the Venice press conference, told reporters at a press conference that there had been requests to make a documentary in the past “but they’d been pretty miserable.”
“Yes. Miserable,” he reiterated when chuckles went up around the room, “and also to the point where they’d want to be concentrating on anything but the music, and consequently I would recoil immediately from that sort of thing.”
But with “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” Page said, “It’s everything about the music and what would make the music tick. And it’s complete versions of song, not just a little sample and then talking heads. This is something in a totally different genre.”
Indeed, the documentary plays songs such as “Good Times Bad Times” and “Ramble On” in full, and to great effect. New footage and angles of well-known gigs breathe new life into iconic performances, and left Venice audiences enthralled. Perhaps to Page’s point, the film is also very much on the band’s terms, with the focus almost entirely on their musical journey rather than any personal hardships or tensions within the group during their early years.
The stars, Page said, “literally aligned” for the four original band members, which include Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and the late John Bonham.
“You can see [we] have different careers and ways of approaching things, but when you come together, there’s an explosion that doesn’t stop,” said Page. “The fact that the first album comes out in January 1970 but the second album [also comes out] in 1970, so with all the touring between America and England and all the recording of bits of footage here and there, the momentum was absolutely— I was going a million miles an hour. That’s what they’ve managed to capture.”
MacMahon, whose previous credits include “American Epic,” described the movie as part-musical and part-how-to guide for aspiring musicians. The director and producer Allison McGourty, who also co-wrote the film, pitched the movie as a complex storyboard of the band’s timeline that was crafted into a leather-bound book, which was presented to Page.
“I guess when we first met, we were a bit nervous with each other, but the conduit was the storyboard,” said Page. “And, for me, because it was so accurate and researched, so deep. I thought, ‘They’ve really done it. They really understand what it was about.’ I just couldn’t wait to see whether it was all going to happen, and it did, and it was a wonderful experience to do. And it’s absolutely true and faithful to the storyboard as you see it on the screen.”
McGourty noted that “Becoming,” which had a script to work off, employed an “unusual” way of production that’s more akin to a “feature film way of making a documentary.” The producer said the team would next like to pursue a feature film based on the band.
As for why Led Zeppelin broke up shortly after the 1980 death of its legendary drummer Bonham, in contrast with the Rolling Stones and their decision to continue without Charlie Watts, who died at 82 last month, Page was philosophical about the band’s ethos.
“I love the Stones, I gotta tell you that. I loved Charlie’s playing and the way he locked in with Bill and Keith,” said Page.
“But what was different with Led Zeppelin and most other bands is we would go on the stage and it would be improvising all the way through the set. So from  when you start all the way through to losing John Bonham, a lot of improvising and riffs would just come up [on stage]. When we lost John it was inconceivable [to continue playing]. What were you going to do, lose the improvising? It was an easy decision.”
“Becoming Led Zeppelin” includes extremely rare footage of a Bonham interview that took one year to track down. The drummer was speaking with an Australian journalist who didn’t identify himself, which meant that MacMahon had to go to “every Australian journalist from that period and ask, ‘Do you know this voice?'”
Eventually, someone recognized the voice, but the journalist had died years ago. Incredibly, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia had 30,000 unmarked reels of tape from interviews, and after a year of going through every single tape, the recording with Bonham was discovered.
“The thing about John is that he is living in this film,” said Page.