When I first saw Led Zeppelin, they were the middle act at the Bath Festival of Blues in England in 1969 behind headliners Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, and John Mayall. These others were good, but Zeppelin was transcendent. They stole the show — something that would happen often in the future on the way to selling 300 million records.
Flash forward to 2007. Led Zeppelin reunites for its first headlining show in 27 years — a charity fund-raiser for the Ahmet Ertegun Foundation at London's O2 Arena. More than 20 million people enter a lottery for tickets, but only 18,000 get them. For those lucky few it becomes "Celebration Day," which is also the title of the new, long-delayed movie from that performance. It will first have premieres in London, New York, Berlin, and Tokyo, then a two-day debut at 1,500 cinemas in 43 countries on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by a multi-format Blu-ray and DVD release on Nov. 19.
At a recent screening in New York, I was struck by how powerfully and easily the band turned back the years. Fronted by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones and backed by drummer Jason Bonham (son of Zeppelin's original drummer, John), the group played two hours of Zep favorites from the opening "Good Times Bad Times" (the first song on their debut album) to all-time classic-rock hit "Stairway to Heaven." They were framed against a high-tech, color-drenched LED screen that would have made U2 envious.
"Thank you for the thousands and thousands of emotions we're going through,'' Plant tells the crowd, which includes celebrities Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Oasis, and "three generations of Presleys," as Page would say later. (Presumably, these celebs didn't go through the ticket lottery.)
The race is now on to make the rollout of the film as legendary as the performance. "I started working on this two years ago,'' says Grant Calton, CEO of distributors Omniverse Vision, in a phone interview from Europe. "We're basically in the business of what is known as 'alternative content' or 'event cinema.' It's about things that fall outside the regular film mold, if you will, and creating events around them.
"Event cinema is a burgeoning niche which is being driven by digital cinema, obviously, and also the growth of emerging markets like Brazil and Southeastern Asia, Eastern Europe, and China, as well," Calton adds.
The Zeppelin film will be Omniverse's biggest global event so far in terms of distribution. The second biggest was a live transmission of the 25th anniversary performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" at London's Royal Albert Hall, beamed to 900 cinemas around the world.
The Zep film is the career peak for director Dick Carruthers. He is a longtime collaborator with the band, having worked on the re-release of their concert film, "The Song Remains the Same," in 2007.
Carruthers used a whopping 15 cameras for the Zeppelin shoot at O2 Arena. Most were high-definition cameras but he also had three Super 8s ("those domestic '70s home movie cameras," he says) planted in the crowd. The Super 8s yielded grainy footage that he mixed in with the HD footage to give "a hint of a bootleg feel." It works beautifully. And, in the only non-concert moments, he adds humorous footage from a news station in Tampa reporting on a Zeppelin stadium concert there that drew 50,000 people in 1973.
"That was Robert Plant's idea," Carruthers says in a phone interview from London. "We found it as a little historical curio from the archives."
The band also gave Carruthers carte blanche to film whatever he wanted, thus fostering an astonishing intimacy in the images achieved. "Jimmy [Page] said, 'We want you to be nice and close so everybody can see what we're playing.' That was so different from when I shot Jack White of the White Stripes. There was a shot of Jack playing his wah-wah (guitar) pedal with his foot, but he said, 'Can you take that out? I don't want people to know how I made that sound.' So I mentioned this to Jimmy Page and he said, 'No, I want people to see what I play. Show the pedals, show the feet, and show close-ups of my hands on the guitar.'
"So we ended with a lot of things the world has never seen — the close-ups of Jimmy and of John Paul Jones playing the bass with his foot pedals while he's on the keyboards. You've heard it and wondered if it was an overdub, but it's him playing with his feet."
Another smart move was Carruthers putting a fixed camera on the drum riser. "We didn't expect to get anything from it, but from going through the rushes, every now and again both Jimmy and John will turn and face Jason and you get a great shot of them right in front of the bass drum that no camera operator would ever get."
The performance reaches a zenith on "Misty Mountain Hop," which is accompanied by fluid images of stained glass windows on the LED screen; and on the following "Kashmir," one of Zeppelin's most mystical songs, in which Plant shouts the incantation, "Let me take you there!"
"Everybody's eyes were on us waiting for this to go not-so-much right but go wrong," Plant said at a recent press conference in London. "So there was a real feeling of camaraderie afterward."
Not enough camaraderie, alas, to spark Zeppelin to tour again. Promoters offered them millions of dollars after this comeback show, but Plant, in particular, did not want to do it, instead opting for smaller, boutique albums and tours with Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin.
One bonus for fans is that a special disc of a full dress rehearsal for the O2 show will be added to one of the DVD packages in November. It took place at Shepperton Studios, which also houses a famous film studio. Carruthers set up just one camera at the back of a hall space, so it's totally unlike the all-out film assault at the arena.
A big question, of course, is why did it take five years to get "Celebration Day" out?
"Five years is five minutes in Led Zeppelin time. I'm surprised we're getting it out this quickly,'' said the dry-witted Jones at the press conference.
"You have to look at the historical perspective,'' says Carruthers. "There were bits from the '70s that never came out until Jimmy and I worked on them in 2002, which became a DVD ['How the West Was Won']. So what it tells you is that this is a band that will sit on stuff until the time is right. There is certainly no commercial pressure on them. No rules apply to them now.
"They locked this stuff away in a vault after the London show, but I figured I'd get a phone call at some point that would say, 'Let's have a look at it.' And I did," says Carruthers, who is still working on the various DVD packages. "To have this come to life in the cinema and on DVD is the pinnacle for me. It doesn't feel like it right now, but when it's all over and I'm de-stressed and have a large Sam Adams by my side, I'll be very happy."
Steve Morse can be reached at email@example.com.