For a band that’s now thought of as the Beatles of heavy metal, not to mention one of the four or five greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time, Led Zeppelin got shockingly little critical respect back in the day. You could say that sort of thing happens a lot — in music (just look at the reverence with which ABBA are now regarded; in their heyday they were often dismissed as facile creators of pop jingles) or in movies (films from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Blade Runner” were underrated in their time, and then the culture caught up with them). But in the case of Led Zeppelin, there’s something uniquely telling about the vast chasm between the way they were viewed by their fans and by the gatekeepers of respectability in rock. And that helps to explain why Zep, 50 years on, still sound so raw and explosive and primal and volcanic.
What you hear in their music, as incandescent as a lot of it can be, is a quality that might be described, in a word, as destruction. The riff that powers “Whole Lotta Love” sounds like a locomotive that slipped off the track and is trying to fornicate its way to the apocalypse. “Communication Breakdown,” with its relentless punk staccato topped by Robert Plant’s wail, feels like the soundtrack to a physical assault. Back in the ’70s, that’s what “the critics” didn’t get: that their beloved rock ‘n’ roll could now be this violent, this wild, this mired in a kind of eroticized vandalism. But for those of us who grew up on Zep, grooving to the majestic dark-force wreckage of “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” and “Immigrant Song,” the band tapped something we knew lived inside of us. Zeppelin emerged in the late ’60s, and in many ways were products of that time, but they crushed the last sunbeams of peace and love as surely as Altamont and Manson did.
All of which is to say that “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” the first major documentary chronicle of the band, is a movie that any Zep fan will want to see — but when you do, you may feel, as I did, that it’s full of extraordinary footage but that it’s a rather strange and, in the end, not fully satisfying film.
For starters, the movie is totally true to its title. It devotes its entire first hour to telling the story of the band members during the ’50s and ’60s, when they were growing up and finding their way as London-based musicians in the rock establishment. Much of this stuff is fascinating, and was unknown to me. I had no idea, for instance, that Jimmy Page, as a virtuoso London session musician, played on everything from “Downtown” to “Goldfinger” to sessions with the Who, the Stones, and David Bowie, or that John Paul Jones was an arranger who orchestrated the sound of songs like Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.” (The other musicians in the studio that day thought the horns on the track were cheesy, until Paul McCartney happened to wander in and said that he thought they were great.)
We see the early rockers that the members of Zep describe as entering their bloodstream like drugs: not just Elvis and Little Richard and Bo Diddley, but the Scottish skiffle player Lonnie Donegan (described by Page as “a force of nature,” and in the TV clip we see he really is) or the Johnny Burnette Trio doing “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” in 1956 (Burnette sounds like Elvis as a stone killer). Any good documentary is bound to explore its subject’s early days; that “Becoming Led Zeppelin” does it so exhaustively feels earned. The movie is so scrupulous in laying out the band’s formative chapters that at times, it’s like something you might be watching on PBS.
Yet “Becoming Led Zeppelin” also has a curiously hermetic quality. Imagine that the film really was a PBS special — the equivalent of a two-hour “American Masters” episode. (That’s not so farfetched; PBS, by now, has excavated plenty of rock ‘n’ roll.) In addition to taking an archival deep dive into Zeppelin’s roots, it would offer shading, perspective, a vision of how its subject fitted into and changed the culture. In “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” the director, Bernard MacMahon, interviews the band’s three surviving members: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones. (We hear the voice of John Bonham, who died after a drinking binge in 1980, on taped interviews.) But they’re literally the only people he talks to! No producers, no managers, no executives, no spouses, no friends, no enemies, no colleagues, no rivals, no critics. “Becoming Led Zeppelin” is full of essential stuff, but on some level it feels like a Led Zeppelin infomercial.
The Zep members, all in their mid-70s, are charming raconteurs of their own legend. Jimmy Page is now an elegant moon-faced gentleman with long white hair that makes him look like one of the Founding Fathers, and he’s got good stories about being a member of the Yardbirds, navigating the London recording scene, and playing hardball with Atlantic Records executives over the issue of who would control Led Zeppelin’s music — the band insisted on full control — and of his refusal to release any singles. Page realized that album-oriented FM rock radio would now do the trick of marketing them. Plant, with a crown of curls and an impish grin, evokes the ardor he felt watching blues musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson, and John Paul Jones, with his ageless ebullience, captures the sheer electric headiness of the first time the band ever played together.
The trouble with framing a documentary as Led Zeppelin’s diary of itself is that as they start to become famous, a force in the world at large, the anecdotal POV seems more and more selective and insular. The whole reason that there has never been a Zeppelin documentary (apart from the mixed-bag 1976 concert film “The Song Remains the Same”) is that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have been incredible control freaks over the band’s image. That they and Jones are the only people interviewed here is clearly something they insisted upon. Much of it has to do with the band members’ steadfast refusal to explore any dimension of their legendary scandalous offstage behavior. Sure, there’s “Hammer of the Gods” for that, but a film that looked back at the unhinged hedonism of that time could be revelatory.
And even though it’s “all about the music,” there’s a lot that “Becoming Led Zeppelin” leaves out. The truth is, I didn’t really need to see half an hour of old ’60s rock clips. What I wanted to know more of was how Led Zeppelin, when they formed in 1968, created a sound so hard that it kicked open the door to a nihilistic new age. Put another way: How did Jimmy Page come up with his driving and raucous vision of guitar virtuosity? In the 2008 documentary “It Might Get Loud,” Page talked about how Link Wray’s 1958 song “Rumble” (which many know from the soundtrack of “Pulp Fiction”) was the first song to use feedback musically, and the incredible impact that had on him. Beyond that, there is someone who more or less invented guitar rock as a wall of blistering annihilation. His name is Jimi Hendrix. He is never mentioned in the documentary. (Neither is Link Wray.) For a movie called “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” this one could have done a lot better job of filling in the becoming.
Once Led Zeppelin comes together as a supergroup of unknown musicians (Page, from the Yardbirds, was the one who had a public profile), MacMahon chronicles their early days with a fan’s fever. He lets the performance clips run on, which is something I appreciated — though at one point we see a full-scale TV performance of “Communication Breakdown” (which is searing), followed minutes later by a full-scale concert performance of “Communication Breakdown.” We also see what extraordinary musicians all four of them were: Page with his tasty-lick chugging and riffing and sawing, the soaring orgasmic blues power of Plant’s singing, and the epic clobber of Bonham’s drumming — still the grandest thuds in the history of rock. Jones played the bass with a sinuous invention that made him the James Jamerson of metal. The Zeppelin sound was unified, but it detonated in every direction. In concert, they could sound sloppy (because they didn’t have enough instruments to mimic what Page did in the studio), but no one onstage was ever cooler.
Yet it’s jarring to get caught up in their satanic majesty only to see the documentary come to an end…after the release of “Led Zeppelin II.” (And did we really need 30 seconds of every track from that album played while listing the studio it was recorded at? As if Zep were the only group that ever squeezed in recording sessions on the road!) Yes, by that point they had truly become Led Zeppelin. But really, they were just getting started. Unlike “Dune,” this movie actually made me eager to see a Part II. Maybe at some point it will arrive. Or better yet, maybe someone will make a Led Zeppelin documentary that explores their mystery: how they strode through the ’70s like long-haired power messiahs, walking a stairway to heaven but, much of the time, looking up at it from hell.