2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
The Song Remains the Same September 23, 2019
he Song Remains the Same (1976) is a roundabout concert movie. Directed by Peter Clifton and Joe Massot, who tie together footage from three 1973 Led Zeppelin concerts at Madison Square Garden (plus some live performances recorded on a soundstage), the film is a musical marvel but conspicuously uncertain as a feature. Detrimentally, it doesn't ascribe to convention. The live stuff is interspersed between behind-the
scenes documentary footage and inclusions of half-baked fiction, which mostly consist of nonsense revolving around the hijinks of people dressed in either medieval or roaring ‘20s clothing. The resulting effect is not that this is just a concert cinematized but that it’s a long-winded quasi-music video we wish were a concert cinematized.
Concert movies half-heartedly trying to be more than concert movies typically don't work. To my mind bands and musical artists must commit to one streamlined filmmaking mode; if to include another, it must be just as fully realized. If you’re interested in giving the public a taste of what your live shows are like — and Led Zeppelin, for all intents and purposes, wanted to give their fans the “Led Zeppelin experience” with The Song Remains the Same — just give them the footage. Why gussy it up?
The Song Remains the Same is at its apex when it immerses us in the tracks as if we were treading them like water. Unexpectedly, though, that isn't that common an experience in the movie. There’s so much cutting away to the ancillary footage that we’ll just about have become hypnotized by a song only to have the movie forcefully take us out of our trance. When I was into The Song Remains the Same, I was really into it. The seductive slink of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” drew me in as if it were a musical Frasier spiral. The legendarily Homeric “Stairway to Heaven” proves again in this variation why the thing’s a live staple in the “Freebird” tradition. John Bonham’s novella-like drum solo — caught in the middle of one of my favorite Zeppelin jams, the triumphal “Moby Dick” instrumental — is a long jolt to the neck. It’s a perfect shock collar of a show-off.
But disappointment overwhelms a lot of the film. All the transitions into the fictional sketches and probably canned backstage pandemonium are for the most part bores, and I longed to just face the band and their music, not the added fluff. Yet even the way the film’s shot the majority of the time when at Madison Square Garden doesn’t appeal. While not visually monotonous, there’s a tendency on the part of the feature’s cinematographer to photograph from the point of view of someone banging their head in the front row. It's an optic POV I’m not so crazy about. When I’m under the spell of a concert movie, I want to be swimming in the musical ocean but not feel like I’m getting wrapped up in the current like everyone else.
That The Song Remains the Same was such chaos behind the scenes — it went over budget and over schedule, and was released long after the footage was shot in the first place — makes a lot of sense. Here's a film that stinks of overthinking and looks like the product of overcompensation. Fans still love the movie, but with a more orthodox ethos might it have been enthralling. There’s too much going on to build momentum C+