To say that The Song Remains the Same drags a bit in places would be too kind to films that actually do drag. And that’s just the first 10 minutes. After the gangsters have slain the werewolf (you really must see the film to appreciate just how absurd the little story lines are), Plant and his wife have enjoyed watching their children play in the nude, and Bonham has tooled around in one of his classic cars, it’s a big relief to see the band finally stepping off their plane in the States, on their way to the gig. The problem is that the gig keeps getting interrupted by these fantasy sequences, each of which is supposed to reflect something essential about the character of a bandmember — sort of like the animal costumes suggested in This Is Spinal Tap. So we get a rescue mission back to Middle-earth, where a maiden waits in distress, except it turns out that John Paul Jones is the hideous monster and he’s just headed home to spend a little time with his wife and kids, or something like that. And there’s Plant on horseback with his raven, riding to a castle to dispatch some bad guy with a sword, and Page climbing that hill toward the wizened white wizard, and more of Bonham zipping around with his cars and motorcycles — all interspersed among the actual performances, so that one minute you’re watching Page play a ripping solo and then next he’s off on some mountaintop.
But it’s Peter Grant, the band’s notorious manager, who steals the show. He has a nice little row backstage with someone from the facility who appears to have allowed illegal merchandisers into the building. The towering legendarily fearsome, Grant is pissed, and by the scene’s end, you’re pretty sure that you don’t ever want to make this guy mad at you. (Fear not: he died in 1995.) Later, he’s more in control as he reports the theft of almost $200,000 of Zeppelin’s money from a strongbox at their hotel. No indication is ever given as to whether the missing 200 grand was ever recovered by New York’s finest.
The new edition of the film does include a couple of extra performances — “Celebration Day,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and “The Ocean,” all from that same ’73 tour. But the best live Zeppelin is the stuff they recorded long before they had any plans to make a movie, and most of the best of it can be found on the bonus disc that comes with Mothership. Here you get much rawer footage of a younger, less self-conscious Zeppelin powering through the blooze funk of “We’re Gonna Groove,” “I Can’t Quit You Babe,” and a much more spontaneous “Dazed and Confused.” By the time they get to a furious and fast “Communication Breakdown,” they sound almost like a punk band, and it’s a relief to hear a live “Stairway to Heaven” without all of the ad-libs Plant plants in The Song Remains the Same. This is a lean, mean, explosive Zeppelin, wearing sensible clothes and not trying so much to “expend” or “expand” their indulgence. It’s one very good reason not to spend your money on the version of Mothership that doesn’t come with the DVD. Or, better yet, go on a hunt for that five-hour, two-DVD 2003 Led Zeppelin set.