The year of the rock ’n’ pop documentary continues. So far, 2021 has brought us Edgar Wright’s “The Sparks Brothers,” Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground,” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul.” Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” series is due in November. In the meantime, the Venice Film Festival has now hosted the premiere of “Becoming Led Zeppelin,” a fully authorized history of the 1970s rock gods’ early days, directed and co-written by Bernard MacMahon.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help the thesis that this is a golden age of the music documentary. While Haynes and Wright put their own stamp on the genre, MacMahon’s workmanlike film is very much the kind of primer which you might slump in front of on television. It’s efficient and affectionate, but the band’s major contribution to cinema remains the scene in “School of Rock” in which Jack Black demands, “Don’t tell me you guys have never gotten the Led out.”
MacMahon sticks firmly to rock-doc conventions. Led Zeppelin’s surviving members, Robert Plant (vocals), Jimmy Page (guitar), and John Paul Jones (bass), are interviewed individually: all are affable, polite, and well-preserved. John Bonham, the drummer who died in 1980, contributes via an interview recorded in 1971. Their reminiscences are strictly chronological, beginning with the births of the bandmembers in England in the 1940s: cue black-and-white photographs of them as children.
Plodding through the lads’ happy and uneventful formative years, the film reaches the obligatory section in which they pick up instruments or try to sing, and the overlapping section in which they reminisce about the stars they saw on television and heard on jukeboxes. As tradition demands, each of these reminiscences is followed by a clip. Plant, the most wry of the bunch, pokes fun at this practice. After namechecking “She’s A Mod” by Bonham’s group The Senators, he turns to the camera and says, “Let’s hear a little of it now.”
You can’t fault MacMahon’s research: the film is an exhaustive Who’s Who of Britain’s pop music scene in the 1950s and 1960s, and there is some lovely footage of a shy Page playing with a group of his schoolmates on a BBC talent show. But you might ask whether the director is being over-generous. If he’s got a clip of Bo Diddley or James Brown, then he’s going use as much of it as he can get away with. And once he gets onto Led Zeppelin themselves, those clips can encompass whole songs. “Communication Breakdown” get not one, but two live renditions.
Before that, Plant and Bonham do their apprenticeships in various bands in the Midlands, and sometimes even in the same bands, despite Bonham’s wife’s warning that he won’t get anywhere with “Planty.” In London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, meanwhile, Page and Jones work as session musicians while they’re still teenagers. Jones bluffs his way into a job writing orchestral arrangements for Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ manager, who advises him to change his name from the less rock’n’roll John Baldwin. Page plays guitar with The Who, the Kinks, Tom Jones, and David Bowie. Both Page and Jones are there in Abbey Road Studios for the recording of Shirley Bassey’s classic Bond theme, “Goldfinger.”
Then it’s time for Page to join the Yardbirds, and when they disintegrate, he sets about assembling a group which is capable of playing the adventurous psychedelic blues he hears in his head. To cut a long story short, all four members had so much experience by this point, and so many failed bands and frustrations, that when they finally got together in 1968, they were ready and raring to make sensational music from day one.
But MacMahon doesn’t cut a long story short. His film is a whopping 137 minutes long, and he definitely favours breadth over depth. Some of us felt that Wright was pushing his luck when he devoted a segment of “The Sparks Brothers” to each and every one of Sparks’ albums. MacMahon goes further, and covers each and every track on Led Zeppelin II. Still, at least that section is about the band. Quite why we had to see so much footage of the Apollo 11 lunar landing is harder to explain.
Even after the four men have Become Led Zeppelin, “Becoming Led Zeppelin” keeps rambling on, tracking their progress as they get ever cooler and hairier. It’s not until their triumphant homecoming concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1970 that the film comes to its fairly arbitrary conclusion. In the final minutes, it’s touching to see Page, Plant, and Jones smile as they listen to an old recording of Bonham saying what great blokes they are. But it’s also typical of a project that avoids any suggestion of controversy or scandal, or any hint of the troubles that were waiting in the 1970s.
Considering that its running time rivals that of “Dune,” it’s a shame that all “Becoming Led Zeppelin” has to say is that its subjects were virtuoso musicians who enjoyed what they were doing. Like all of the best rock docs, it will make you want to listen to the band’s albums. But after the second hour has come and gone, you might decide that you’ve listened enough, after all.
“Becoming Led Zeppelin” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.