‘Becoming Led Zeppelin’: Film Review | Venice 2021

Bernard MacMahon’s doc dives into the prehistory of one of classic rock’s defining bands.

For a casual fan who knows the band largely for swagger and self-indulgence, Bernard MacMahon’s Becoming Led Zeppelin is an eye-opening delight — a visit with charming old men who modestly recall the music-drunk paths they took to forming the defining band of the classic-rock ’70s. There’s plenty of indulgence here as well, in a movie that goes nearly an hour past the point at which these four lads became a phenomenon. But viewers not already steeped in their lore will appreciate the trip enough to forgive its victory laps.

It’s a no-frills journey in some respects: no animation, no fawning testimonials from today’s hitmakers, not even input from journalists or rock contemporaries. MacMahon’s only interviewees are the three surviving bandmates, plus audio-only archival interviews from drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980. To this the film adds a wealth of pre-Zep photos, film and ephemera, plus generous helpings of excellent performance footage from their first months together.

Becoming Led Zeppelin

The Bottom Line

An overlong but essential, joyous portrait.

Director: Bernard MacMahon

Screenwriters: Bernard MacMahon, Allison McGourty

2 hours 16 minutes

The bandmates encounter some of this with us, largely for the first time: We watch their faces (each was interviewed separately) as they see material shot in the studio, for instance, or listen to Bonham describe them fondly. Their pleasure is evident, and gratifying. But more enjoyable are stories of the musicians’ sometimes Gump-like early careers, which intersect with everything from bubblegum pop to Muzak to blues great Sonny Boy Williamson (at a urinal, where he understandably told fanboy Robert Plant to fuck off).

For those who don’t know, guitar god Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones (born John Richard Baldwin) were workaholic session musicians from their teens onward, playing on classics like Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” (the only Bond song that matters, no matter what Duran Duran or Wings fans may tell you). Both boys had families who happily supported their early musical tendencies — even if Jones’ father, a vaudevillian, warned his son that the bass guitar was “a novelty instrument” soon to be forgotten. (Get a sax and you’ll always work, he told the boy.)

We hear about their formative musical crushes, including non-household names like Johnny Burnette — seen here in a TV clip where the sanitized setting and photography contrast sharply with the singer’s raw delivery — and skiffle pioneer Lonnie Donegan, “a force of nature,” according to Page. With boyish enthusiasm, the old men echo one another when they speak of these early encounters: Page was “infected”; for Plant, after a concert whose staggering lineup ranged from Bo Diddley to the Stones, “the syringe was in the arm, forever.”

The filmmakers unearth adorable glimpses of teenage rocker Page, while Jones recounts the kind of always-say-yes work ethic that seemingly ensured success: At 14, he taught himself to play organ for a church gig; later, he lied when producer Andrew Loog Oldham asked if he knew how to write orchestral arrangements. Meanwhile, Plant was making more conventional attempts at stardom, taking whatever singing gig he could get and honing the chops that would eventually attract Page’s interest: When the Yardbirds disbanded and Page was tasked with assembling a new version, he really wanted the “ballsy blues voice” of Terry Reid; second-choice Plant would have to do.

By all their accounts, the four men had immediate chemistry when Page got them in a room together and suggested they play “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” a number the Yardbirds had covered. Jones recalls his immediate rhythm-section bond with Bonham (“I was very much in love with John’s right foot”), and soon Page installed them in his Pangbourne boathouse for proper rehearsals. They went on a Scandinavian tour the Yardbirds had booked before disbanding (a legal kerfuffle over the group’s name is omitted here), and were fully formed by the time of a Denmark gig: We watch as a seated, middle-class audience wonders how to respond to the primordial rawk before them.

As the film chronicles the recording and sale of their debut LP, Page provides a nice dissection of how he got their sound on tape and what tricks he used to give them some sonic mystery. Having witnessed the beginnings of FM radio in America on a Yardbirds tour, he foresaw the album-oriented aesthetic on the horizon. When he presented their completed disc to Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, “I made a point of saying, ‘We’re an album band, we’re not doing singles.’ ” The rest — after a whirlwind U.S. tour that proved their appeal before they even had a record out in the U.K. — is history.

But Becoming follows them for about another year, as the Page-Plant partnership started to jell and their reputation as a touring act was made. At two and a quarter hours, the doc’s nearly as long as Edgar Wright’s recent, delightful Sparks film. But while that film’s length was necessitated by Wright’s desire to witness every high and low of an endlessly mutating career, this one’s running time is unjustified, with long chunks that function like music videos. Compared with clips of their first few filmed performances, footage shot from afar at outdoor concerts is of much lower quality, so MacMahon plays whole songs while mostly showing us moon landings, war protests, news headlines and the like.

Big swaths of this could be cut without damaging the film at all. But odds are that any viewer who really resents these stretches would not be all that interested in an 80-minute Led Zeppelin film either.

Full credits

Production company: Paradise Pictures
Director: Bernard MacMahon
Screenwriters: Bernard MacMahon, Allison McGourty
Producers: Allison McGourty, Bernard MacMahon
Director of photography: Vern Moen
Editor: Dan Gitlin

2 hours 16 minutes