REVIEW: Becoming Led Zeppelin (Venice 2021)
Bernard MacMahon’s officially sanctioned documentary Becoming Led Zeppelin is an amusing and indulgent, highly conventional ode to the band’s ‘supergroup’ origins. Featuring commentary from bassist John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page – with late drummer John Bonham appearing through historical radio interviews – as they talk about their experiences in forming one of the greatest British rock bands ever, and creating the masterwork that is Led Zeppelin I.
That is history. It is a fact that Led Zeppelin are one of the biggest selling bands in the history of music with five albums certified platinum within the states, with hundreds of millions of albums sold, and for a good reason. They are excellent. They are not just excellent, they were revolutionary and completely utterly enthralling to view perform. Jones, Page and Plant know this. So you’d think after over forty years, the worlds biggest rock band wouldn’t need an ego boost…but here we are.
Becoming Led Zeppelin is a documentary that has no voice, no perspective and no aspirations. MacMahon forgoes anything in favour of a squeaky-clean documentary which exists to reinforce the already known idea that this band is the greatest ever. The first hour of this 137 minute long documentary collates the bands origins, from Robert Plant becoming homeless, to their time as session players, playing with the likes of David Bowie and The Rolling Stones to the release of Led Zeppelin II. While it remains objective truth that they played with the biggest names on the planet prior to their forming of Led Zeppelin, the method it delivers is one that screams to the audience that they were so prodigal that their late teens were spent jamming with the stars. It doesn’t provide any real insight into the band itself, nor does it have anything but a whole lotta love for them. Which is a shame because the audience who seek out this documentary already love Led Zeppelin, this reviewer included. This would fit in perfectly as a 2-parter on the history channel – split between their debut album Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II – at 1pm, grabbing a half-watch from a fan whom will enjoy hearing their great music blasting through their television speakers and hearing the band speak.
“Look how cool I thought I was” quips John Paul Jones, when looking over footage of himself during a session. It entertains with this kind of humour throughout but it feels like a dinner party conversation you’re having with the band, but they never let you speak back. They’re basically a bottle of wine down, eyes sparkling with the memories as they watch this footage, but it’s all too laidback and mundane for a band who was banned in numerous countries. At one point Plant is described by Jones’ partner as someone who will “bring you down” but the documentary forgets to delve into any of Plant’s eccentricities, and at one point shows a banner held aloft by a fan citing “Free Robert Plant”. From what? The doc expects you to know it’s history, and sugarcoats any and all controversy into “we were naturals” and look how cool we are. It even goes as far as saying bluntly that the band, when not touring, were straight-laced family men. A more insightful documentary may have used that to showcase their addiction to America, that rock and roll was their needle, that they kept leaving their families for months to tour and drink and enjoy the sixties in their full swing – which historically they absolutely did.
One of the biggest controversies in Led Zeppelin’s history is their pilfering of black music as their own. Showcasing this briefly, Robert Plant shockingly declares outright during the documentary that they stole black music. MacMahon breezes past it, never giving it a moments regard. It skirts away from any of this and and all inflammatory topics. It doesn’t want to do anything more than provide the basic history of Led Zeppelin. Which would be fine, if the history wasn’t littered with controversial moments. If this had been a concert movie featuring tracks from the band, it would have been a whole lot more palatable as an experience. But intermittent segments of tracks playing throughout don’t provide that same immersion, and immersion is something that this really struggles with during it’s extended runtime.
What feels like a whole different documentary begins at points with extended montages of the moon landing, attempting to give a timeline for the release of the bands albums which could have been dealt simpler, without the unnecessary archival footage. Said archival footage is really great – one extended scene not withstanding, as it obtusely says on screen the entire time that the footage was damaged – but that is the bands talent shining through, more than the documentarian. It’s within this archival footage we see the band emerge from their different upbringings but it’s meandering. Funnily enough, at one point within the documentary, a band member says during their description of touring America that the band “didn’t know what fatigue was”. It’s apparent within this that neither does MacMahon as this is an overlong sticky seat squirmer.
Becoming Led Zeppelin is a completely sanitised ego trip down memory lane which is so long that it goes down like a lead zeppelin. But as disappointing a documentary as it is, it will make audience and fans alike listen to them religiously for more than a few days afterwards, because their music is just. that. good.