Two vintage rock warhorses premiered new movies this week, with Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day showing in cinemas on Wednesday evening, followed by The Rolling Stones’ Crossfire Hurricane on Thursday. The former was a once-off showing, with a DVD release to follow on November 19th, while the latter will go on general cinematic release soon.
Relations between these bands tend more towards rivalry than camaraderie, with Keith Richards opinioning in April 2008 that, “‘Stairway To Heaven’ don’t make it for me, baby”, and that he likes neither Robert Plant’s vocal style nor John Bonham’s style of drumming. However, Richards does acknowledge that Jimmy Page is one of the great blues-rock guitarists—”For me, Zeppelin is Jimmy Page.” Meanwhile, Plant has been heard to bemoan that, “They (The Stones) got all the press, while we sold shitloads of records.”
But points of comparison between the bands, based on these new films, is problematic, as the Zep one is a filmed live concert of the group’s 2007 one-off reunion show at the O2 Arena in London, while the Stones’ film is a documentary to mark 50 years in the business.
What one can say about Celebration Day is that it is expertly filmed by Dick Carruthers, and certainly succeeds as a performance, especially considering that the three surviving members hadn’t shared a stage together since the death from alcohol poisoning in 1980 of Bonham, whose son Jason stands in for his old man as force-of-nature skin-thumper. In fact, what’s remarkable is how ‘on’ each of the four musicians is, and how almost telepathic the intuitive understanding is between them, down to getting all the pauses and spaces in the songs right. The only let-up I detected was a rather tentative ‘Stairway To Heaven’—but maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part, reflecting a) my admiration for the aforementioned Keith Richards and his musical opinions, and b) the fact that it is the one song it is almost impossible for my generation of former punks to listen to without laughing out loud.
As Plant says at one point, selecting which tracks to play from their 10 albums in a two-hour set had been a real challenge—”…but some songs have to be there.” Among these are: ‘Good Times Bad Times’, ‘Ramble On’, ‘Black Dog’, ‘No Quarter’, ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’, ‘Dazed And Confused’, ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’. All are pretty much magnificently rendered. The only song featured here which they’ve never performed live before is ‘For Your Life’ from 1976’s Presence. Under these constraints, the acoustic side of the band does suffer from lack of representation.
It’s also good to hear Plant finally acknowledging the blues forebears they plundered for much of their material, something they haven’t been entirely open about in the past (Willie Dixon had to sue them to get his songwriting credit and royalties for ‘Whole Lotta Love’). Thus, there are shout outs to The Staple Singers, among others, for the many previous versions of ‘In My Time of Dying’, to Robert Johnson’s ‘Terraplane Blues’ for ‘Trampled Underfoot’, and to Blind Willie Johnson for ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, even if the latter is ‘Trad Arr.’ and in the public domain, and so retains the Page/Plant imprint.
Jason Bonham does an admirably excellent job of filling his father’s shoes, and comes across as a much more genial and personable presence than Bonham Snr. (aka ‘The Beast’). During the extended drum outro to final song ‘Rock’n’Roll’, as with much of the rest of the evening, it is possible to imagine him channeling Dad, or at least doing it for him, and can bring a tear to the eye. It does seem slightly anomalous, though, that the youngest guy in the group now is also the only baldy head.
All in all, Celebration Day is a much finer document of Zep Live than 1976’s The Song Remains The Same, which was marred by hocus-pocus fantasy sequences. Twenty million people applied for tickets for this reunion gig; only 18,000 got them. While this is a valuable souvenir for all those fans who weren’t there, the irony is that it’s so good it could make the disappointment of not having been one of the lucky ones even more acute.
4 out of 5
The audience for Crossfire Hurricane had to endure an hour of red carpet shenanigans from the likes of Liam Gallagher (suddenly reinvented as a lifelong Stones fan) before the film proper began. When we finally get to see it, it becomes apparent that the latest foray into putting the Stones on the big screen, this time by director Brett Morgen, is a decidedly strange hotch-potch.
Hardly a band who want for celluloid incarnations of themselves, Crossfire Hurricane draws from the little-seen, although recently re released, Charlie Is My Darling; Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil; the Maysles brothers’ Altamont-focused Gimme Shelter; the equally rarely-seen Robert Frank film of their 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues; and Julien Temple’s Stones at the Max and amalgamates them all into a kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle. What it does have over previous films about the band, and its USP in trying to tell and sell a story that’s been told and sold so many times before, is a slew of new interviews with current and ex-band members, which are heard in voice over throughout, as no talking heads appear.
So, we get today’s perspective on pivotal events—the sacking and death of Brian Jones, the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont—which mostly confirms the adage that hindsight has 20/20 vision. There’s Andrew Loog Oldham’s deliberate attempt to position the group as the anti-Beatles (“Parents liked The Beatles, they didn’t like The Stones”, “They’re so ugly, they’re appealing”), and how the early drug busts and court appearances solidified the bad boy image in the public eye (“The cops made me a criminal,” quips Richards). What’s clear now about the Redlands bust is that they weren’t doing anything kids today aren’t doing every weekend—the cool ones, that is (and nothing those nice Beatle boys weren’t doing either). There is also an intimation, albeit unstated, of Jagger discovering that rebellion was big business, and could be sold.
What’s especially interesting is where opinions diverge: while Richards has always construed their early ’70s exile as fleeing England for fear of establishment-sponsored police harassment, Jagger here counters: “Keith always says he was chased out of England by the cops. He may believe that but it’s not actually true. The band left because of money.” Of Jones’ death, there is a new sense of just how hard it hit the band members, particularly Jagger himself, and how there are twinges of guilt at having some responsibility. Of Altamont, what comes across is how terrifyingly provisional everything seemed at the time, how the band felt they weren’t in control, and how much they feared for their own personal safety. It’s the old Hitchcock chestnut about ordinary people in extraordinary situations – although in some cases maybe that should be amended to extraordinary people in extraordinary situations.
Richards is nice about Mick Taylor, calling him a virtuoso. “What’s interesting to me about playing guitar is not playing by yourself, but playing with another guy.” Taylor, however, attributes his leaving to wanting to protect his family “from Keith’s orbit”.
What’s particularly odd about the film is how abruptly it ends, occasioning a collective “WTF?”. Ronnie joins, Keith gets busted in Toronto and cleans up, and they’re the last significant events. It’s almost as though the band is tacitly colluding in a pervasive, if erroneous, narrative that they haven’t done anything of significance since the late ’70s. Given that the film is produced by Jagger, and executive produced by the other three, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this is how the group wants the audience to see and read them. By the same token, even if this is supposed to be celebrating 50 years and counting, maybe the last 30 years have not been so much of a crossfire hurricane. That said, it would still have been nice to see the completed arc from social outcasts to national treasures (and, in Jagger’s case, Knight of the Realm). Maybe that’s what the red carpet was for.
4 out of 5
To conclude, as hinted initially, it’s pretty much impossible to discuss a concert movie and a documentary in tandem, looking for points of reference. Maybe a documentary suits the Stones more though, given that they are much more of a socio-historical phenomenon, aside from being a solely musical one, than Zep ever were. In truth, the ideal comparison would be between Celebration Day and Martin Scorsese’s 2008 live Stones film, Shine A Light. Which of those is better? It depends largely which band you were more of a fan of to begin with, I’d reckon. For this writer, it would be the Stones, and the Stones’ flick. Still.