Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 3: Concert films

Concert films. Fun as an immersion exercise but winceable to see on the shelf with all the real movies. They can give visitors the wrong impression (did you really need to own a copy?) You might like the occasional plunge into an immersive experience or just plug into a favourite song now and then. Are they history, narcissism, both or neither?

Whatever the motive do they deliver? Do they take you there? Are they more self-indulgence than gestures of outreach? An occasional series. First up a contrasting pair:

 Right, well, this is a barn door of a target as it is so much a product of its time that it’s almost obligatory to ridicule it for its excess and complete lack of irony. This is a document of dinosaurs walking the earth, gigantic and unassailable, when rockstarism was celebrated and fandom a matter of plain religious devotion. The fandom is built into this film and far from being a document of a concert, it is a faith maintenance device.

This film started life as a legitimately narcissistic exercise and then just bloated out and kept bloating right up to its release date and into the reputation of its all important soundtrack album. But it was troubled from the start. The director hired for the job proved inadequate for the task, hopelessly out of his depth in the logistics of capturing a live band on the scale of, say, the biggest live act in the world of the time. Another director was found and finished the job with far truer results. But there was more.

Someone had the idea of extending the concert experience with sequences drawing on the band’s mystique. These would be daydreams or fantasy landscapes, places where the musicians might go while in the midst of musical euphoria. And, further, some context of their lifestyles would all add up to a complete experience for the fan of what it was like to live and play at the top of the mountain.

So how did it go? Where to start? Ok, the beginning might do. Remember the fantasy sequences? Well Led Zep’s movie started with the fantasy of the band’s manager. Who would do that? Well, Peter Grant, an ex boxer who had done a lot for the band in terms of surrounding them in a fog of mystique and fear, assisting them with record record deals and concert tour takings etc etc. He was no slouch and kept the big lead balloon aloft. So, his fantasy sequence begins proceedings. He’s a Capone-style gangster and along with a lot of other gangsters raids a Nazi operational centre and machine guns it up with some of the goofiest gore effects you’re likely to see outside of a Romero zombie movie knockoff. Ok, that was interesting, what about the band?

Well, then we’re off to ol’ Blighty where a delivery boy cycles o’er hill ‘n’ dale through endless rural estates to hand each band member an envelope with the details of the next US tour. Singer, Robert Plant is en famille, with his wife watching his kids splash about in a stream. John Bonham tortures a tilled field with a tractor, the perfect image of a black country farmer. John Paul Jones, also en famille, goes about his fatherly duties and grins with ridiculous overstatement at receiving the new tour dates. Jimmy Page is found at the end of a lengthy handheld tracking shot (like the pov of a stalker). He’s playing a hurdy gurdy by his own personal lake. No delivery boy can get a chance to pass on the tour dates, though as Jim turns around to reveal a pair of glaring scarlet lights where his eyes would normally be. It’s not shown in the film but it’s a fair bet that the delivery boy probably found a pebble to weigh the envelope down and retreat as quietly as he could. Then it’s on to New York for the concert.

Any good? Well, the tour is celebrated for being one of the band’s finest hours, firing on all four cylinders and playing epic shows for masses of the goggle-eyed devout. Except that the gigs filmed for this movie were done at the exhausted end of the tour and, while there’s a fair grab of very fine moments the whole thing is musically lacklustre, something that the soundtrack album made sadly unignorable. But this isn’t music as much as it is spectacle and what you get, as a fan, is the spectre of the mighty at work, in full strut, widescreen and in big fat dolby sound. Then there are the fantasy sequences.

Robert thinks he’s a Viking and fantasises (within his fantasy) that he’s saving a damsel locked in a tower, fighting a pair of guards left over from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (why not, Zep footed a lot of the bill for that film) and more silly gore. John Paul Jones leads a gang of masked vigilantes on horseback to … play the organ in a church before getting back home in time for a late supper.  John Bonham’s daydream is a home movie of a family party and a few bits of drag racing. If anything it lowers the interest value of his interminable drum solo. Jimmy Page climbs a cliff face and meets himself dressed as Gandalf the Grey before regressing through youth and childhood to an embryo. This one kind of works as it’s accompanied by the spooky violin bow section from Dazed and Confused.

After all this the band finish their set with one of their legendary closing numbers that morphed into a juke box of classix from blues and early rock ‘n’ roll and then it’s “New York, good night” which fades into the jet engine sound of adulation from the golden years o’ stadium rock.

I went to see this a few times when it was new, and was rapt each time, gorging on the big screen imagery and the magisterial sound. I played the album at home after an overfilled bowl of chocolate ice cream and then snoozed to it. There was a big difference between it and seeing the movie.  

Does it take you there? And beyond! But the place it more durably takes you is back in time when rock superstardom was as unchallenged as it was unironic. Led Zeppelin were reviled and ridiculed in the press on a scale that increased with their global success. The sense offered the viewer of this film that there is nothing between the band and the audience outside of mystery of the stars is palpable. Just watch as much as you can take, you’ll see.

Before flowing wizard robes there had to be cardigans

Could there be a greater change in how one band is presented when packaged in different eras than this compared to The Song Remains the Same? The earlier film was a product of a living organism, self aware and imperial. This double disc dvd comes decades after the success of the management of its legacy.

Led Zepellin’s currency is so departed that there is no longer any need to preface affection for them with an appeal to irony. While the unbridled self-celebration of the earlier film is absent from this package there remains a clear sense of distance between viewer and content.  The discs, once in the machine, launch straight into the performances, no time for breath or reflection. Worry about the menus later. The same barrier but this time it looks serious rather than risible.

Apart from one mimed clip of an early single everything here is live, warts and all. Except there is a distinct absence of warts. The image quality is stellar, even for the shot-on-video pieces and the sound is appropriately gigantic. Also, unlike the earlier film, there is a real sense that the performances presented have been very carefully handpicked. There’s even footage from the same concerts as Song but here they seem assured and powerful rather than overblown circus attractions. The false mystique removed, there’s substance there after all. Also, well considered is the decision to retain performances of the same material over time. Whole Lotta Love in 1980 sounds very very different to how it sounded in 1970. Call them what you will, LZ could keep it fresh when needed.

This package is a selected history of a band that whose live work was considered as important as its studio output for the difference between the two. That said, there’s really no reverence in the presentation, just the faceless offer of the live footage, a series of artefacts rather than a sales job. Yes, just for fans (what concert movie isn’t? ok, Gimme Shelter: I’ll do that one soon) but for fans a treat as deliciously stuffed as a Christmas turkey.

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