MOVIE REVIEW: THE BEST LED ZEPPELIN CONCERT YOU EVER SAW, "CELEBRATION DAY"
I had tickets to see the band for their tour in the fall of 1980, and was sitting in the back of my mom's car one day when the news came over the radio that John Bonham had died. The tour was cancelled immediately, and Led Zeppelin was no more. Although I was crushed by the news, I understood why they decided to stop. After Keith Moon's death, I was more than a little upset to see the Who move on so quickly to another drummer, Kenney Jones. As competent as he was, he wasn't Moon -- no one ever was Moon -- and the lack was felt acutely. Bonham had the same place in Led Zeppelin, and the band just didn't have the heart to continue without him.
In the '80s and '90s there were a couple of one-off Zep reunions, projects that Page and Plant worked on together featuring both new and old material, with results ranging from excellent to admittedly horrible. In-fighting, personal issues, and solo projects prevented the three remaining members from doing much more about the constant pressure to reunite Led Zeppelin. Millions and millions of dollars were waved at them to tour again, but the answer was always "no." Bonham was gone, and the formidable demons of the past that also marked the band's career perhaps were better left locked in a box for good.
Many more years passed, and the call for Led Zeppelin to perform again never waned. In 2006, legendary music business figure Ahmet Ertegun died, following a fall backstage at a Rolling Stones concert. Ertegun was the founder and president of Atlantic Records, and was the one to befriend and sign Led Zeppelin, and remained an extremely important and beloved figure to them even after the band stopped recording and touring. In his honor, Page, Plant, and Jones decided to headline a 2007 concert at London's O2 Arena, with the proceeds to benefit the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, a music scholarship charity. John Bonham's son Jason, also an excellent drummer, was selected to join them, the perfect sonic and sentimental choice.
The concert holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for "Highest Demand for Tickets for One Music Concert" -- a staggering 20 million requests poured in. The band were suitably humbled by this, and went into six weeks of pre-show rehearsals with the right attitude, as Jimmy Page noted afterwards to Uncut:
"I knew it was going to sell out quickly, but the tidal wave of euphoria that preceded the gig—the anticipation—went beyond what I could possibly have imagined. We'd had a few shambolic appearances in the past, like Live Aid, so if we were ever going to come back together, we were going to do it properly and stand up and be counted."And so the concert commenced, and by all reports was spectacular. The bootleggers and YouTubers commenced, and those 19,980,000 people like me who did not get tickets got to hear and see something of it, and even in less-than-awesome fidelity, you could tell it was really some special thing. The music press and public once again begged the band to continue the one night into a full tour, but despite Page, Jones, and Bonham's willingness to do so, Plant steadfastly declined and it never happened.
But as we fast-forward five full years to the now, the Fall of 2012, at last all of us can properly see and hear what is arguably the best concert Led Zeppelin ever performed. Yes, that is what I am proposing here: that even without the tremendous elder Bonham, even with Plant's vocal range somewhat limited by age, even decades after they split up, the London show was nearly flawless. With the limited theatrical release of the concert film "Celebration Day," and DVD/CD/MP3 to arrive November 19th (LP on December 11th), you have as close as you were ever gonna get to a front-row seat to a real live musical, and no doubt personal, triumph.
Led Zeppelin - "Celebration Day" trailer
I was fortunate enough to see the film last night in Seattle in glorious 70mm widescreen on the 70-ft. tall screen at Cinerama with Zep fans so hardcore they clapped and cheered after every single song, exactly as if they were at the concert that moment. What an experience. I loved that "Celebration Day" gets straight to the concert, and it runs without interruption -- no interview splices, no backstage antics, no fan ramblings, and certainly no inserts of the band dressing up as fantasy characters in the mist. It's the show itself, shot from 14 different cameras around the venue. I was so grateful to director Dick Carruthers in NOT giving us a nauseating-quick-cut MTV hack job; instead, the shooting and editing are done with a musician's eye, putting us right where we want to be in the action at the right time, with just the right amount of jump vs. stay. There is an easy flow to the film that allows us to focus so well on not only the individual performances but also to experience the grandness of the full sound of the band. (A minor production complaint from this concert photog's eyes: the show was well-lit for an arena audience, but could have been more thoughtfully done for film. The primary light use is yellow and red, the banes of my existence, which not only often blows out the highlights on film, but lends kind of a sickly skin cast. Also, a few uplights would have been good to eliminate harsh shadows. OK, I'm done.)
There were so many times I smiled and even laughed aloud during the movie, almost in a disbelief of how fantastic it was, and along with what a good time they all seemed to be having onstage. One forgets how improvisational both Page and Plant are in live performance; along with their tendencies to take the melodies and riffs purposefully off-time, each man is very much of the moment, and this helps make the songs have that very cool Zeppy edge-of-disaster feeling. It was beyond crucial for Jones and Bonham to lock their rhythm section together to keep things from flying apart and adjust on the spot, which they did beautifully. From the opening "Good Times, Bad Times," to the closing encore "Rock n' Roll," two hours later, the band's confidence and delight grew -- they knew it was working, and they knew they had to work hard to make it great, and did. This time, there were no drugs or drink, no gun-wielding managers, no hoards of groupies, no over-long indulgent solos, no bleary, world-weary "Golden Gods" egos to interfere with the music. Instead, there were three men, standing in tribute to the man who gave them a chance to make the kind of music they wanted to, even despite critical panning for years, and one man who stood in tribute to his own father, lost to alcohol abuse. They stood and played, facing the crowd with older faces, gray hair, with no spangle-y jumpsuits or skin-tight jeans or bared chests. Nope, this time the band, by default, just had to bring the core of what brought them together in the first place, and why millions of people responded to them with such passion.
I would guess that this concert will stand as the last one Led Zeppelin ever plays, at least in this combination and for an entire show-length performance. One reason that might be is knowing that it just couldn't be done any better than it was at the O2 that night. Going out on a high note is a great thing to leave your fans with, and that it was done for charity makes it even sweeter. "Celebration Day" reminds us of all the elements that made Led Zeppelin one of the very, very best bands in rock n' roll, and inspires us by showing us what is possible with a little late-life fire in the belly and a sincere desire to honor those we love.