Promotional materials stated that the film was "the band's special way of giving their millions of friends what they had been clamouring for – a personal and private tour of Led Zeppelin. For the first time the world has a front row seat on Led Zeppelin."
A reissue of the film, including previously unreleased footage as a bonus, was released on DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray Disc on 20 November 2007, by Warner Home Video.
Since late 1969, Led Zeppelin had been planning on filming one of their live performances for a projected movie documentary of the band. The group's manager, Peter Grant, believed that they would be better served by the big screen than by television, because he regarded the sound quality of the latter as unsatisfactory. The first attempt was the filming (by Peter Whitehead and Stanley Dorfman) of Led Zeppelin's Royal Albert Hall performance on 9 January 1970, but the lighting was judged to be mediocre, and the film was shelved (this footage was later remastered and featured on the 2003 release Led Zeppelin DVD).
On the morning of 20 July 1973, during the band's concert tour of the United States, Peter Grant made a contact with American-born director Joe Massot. Massot was already known to Grant as he and his wife had moved into a house in Berkshire in 1970, where they made friends with their neighbours, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and his girlfriend Charlotte Martin. Grant had previously turned down offers by Massot to make a film of the band, but with the huge success of the band's current tour, Grant changed his mind and offered him the job of director. As Grant recalled:
It all started in the Sheraton Hotel, Boston. We'd talked about a film for years and Jimmy had known Joe Massot was interested — so we called them and over they came. It was all very quickly arranged.
Massot hurriedly assembled a crew in time for Led Zeppelin's last leg of the tour starting on 23 July 1973, in Baltimore. He subsequently filmed the group's three concert performances at Madison Square Garden on the nights of 27, 28, and 29 July 1973. The film was entirely financed by the band and shot on 35mm with a 24-track quadraphonic sound recording. The live footage in the US alone cost $85,000.
The plans to film the shows at Madison Square Garden were threatened when the local trades union tried to block the British film crew from working. The band's attorneys negotiated with the union and the crew was eventually allowed to film the concerts.
The footage of the band arriving at the airport in their private jet airliner, The Starship, and travelling in the motor cavalcade to the concert was filmed in Pittsburgh, before their show at Three Rivers Stadium on 24 July 1973.
For the band's three New York performances, the band members wore exactly the same clothes to facilitate seamless editing of the film, except for John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page who wore different sets of attire on some of the nights, which created continuity problems. Page is seen wearing a different dragon suit in "Rock and Roll" and the "Celebration Day" remaster. In an interview from 1997 Jones said that the reason he didn't wear the same stage clothes was that he asked the crew if they would be filming on those nights and was told no. "I'd think 'not to worry, I'll save the shirt I wore the previous night for the next filming'. Then what would happen is that I'd get onstage and see the cameras ready to roll."
As Led Zeppelin's popularity soared throughout the 1970s, Peter Grant became increasingly notorious for being brutally protective of his band and their finances. The Song Remains the Same captures one such exchange between him and a concert promoter. When Warner Bros. approved the film they did so on the proviso that expletives would be 'bleeped' out. Clifton took the optical print and bleeped the words, meaning the words were inaudible and the film was given an appropriate rating. However, on every other print the words were retained and were fully audible.
In the scene where Peter Grant is driven to the police station to be questioned about the theft from the safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel, he has his arm outside the police car. According to an interview conducted in 1989, he explained the reason he wasn't handcuffed was that the policeman driving the car used to be a drummer in a semi-professional band which had supported The Yardbirds on one of its US college tours in the late-1960s. Grant had at the time been manager of The Yardbirds. The money stolen from the safe deposit box at the Drake Hotel was never recovered and no one has ever been charged, although a former staff member of the hotel reportedly fled to Jamaica soon after the theft.
The scenes of police chasing an intruder and of Grant berating the promoter for receiving kickbacks were both shot at the Baltimore Civic Center on 23 July 1973. Grant purportedly recommended the "Dazed and Confused" sequence wherein the camera zooms into Page's eyes and cuts to the scene.
Some unused backstage shots filmed at Baltimore and at Pittsburgh later found their way into the promotional video for "Travelling Riverside Blues", released in 1990.
Dissatisfied with the progress of the film, Grant had Massot removed from the project and Australian director Peter Clifton was hired in his place in early 1974. Massot was offered a few thousand pounds in compensation. Peter Grant later sent someone to Massot's house to collect the film. However, Massot had hidden the film elsewhere and so instead an expensive editing machine owned by Massot was taken as collateral. Massot served a writ, leading to a period of stalemate which was finally broken when Grant and Led Zeppelin's lawyer Steve Weiss agreed to pay Massot the money he was owed, after which he delivered the film to the band. Massot was not invited to attend the premiere of the film at New York but he attended anyway, buying a ticket from a scalper outside the theatre.
Clifton, realising that there were crucial holes in the concert footage, suggested that the entire show be recreated at Shepperton Studios in August 1974, on a mock-up of the Madison Square Garden stage. Close-ups and distance footage of the band members could then be slipped into the live sequences, which made up the bulk of the concert footage seen in the film. When it was agreed that the band would meet at Shepperton Studios for filming, Jones had recently had his hair cut short, so he had to wear a wig. Robert Plant's teeth had also been fixed between the 1973 and 1974 filmings.
In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page recalled the events surrounding the shooting of additional footage at Shepperton Studios:
... I'm sort of miming at Shepperton to what I'd played at Madison Square Garden, but of course, although I've got a rough approximation of what I was playing from night to night, it's not exact. So the film that came out in the '70s is a bit warts-and-all.
A plan to shoot additional footage on the band's Autumn 1975 U.S. tour was abandoned due to Plant's car crash in Rhodes, Greece.
In 1976 a midnight screening of the film was organised by Atlantic Records before its release, at which label president Ahmet Ertegün reportedly fell asleep.
The Song Remains the Same was finally completed by early 1976, 18 months behind schedule and over-budget. Peter Grant later quipped "It was the most expensive home movie ever made". It grossed $200,000 in its first week at the box office.
Following the film's completion, Led Zeppelin had a falling out with Peter Clifton. Suspecting that he had 'stolen' negatives of the film, Grant ordered that his house be searched. They did find some footage, but this turned out to be a collection of the best 'home movie' footage which Clifton had intended to give to the band members as a gift. Clifton was also annoyed at the decision to remove from the film's credits the names of all the people who had worked on editing, make up and effects. Unlike Massot, however, Clifton was invited to both the New York and London premieres of the film.
With the intention of giving an insight into the individual personalities in the band, several out-of-concert 'fantasy sequences' were shot by Massot for each of the band members, as well as for Peter Grant and tour manager Richard Cole. The sequences are as follows:Grant and Cole were filmed as hitmen driving towards Hammerwood Park estate in Sussex in a 1928 Pierce-Arrow car. Roy Harper also makes an uncredited guest appearance as one of the 'greedy millionaires' portrayed at a business meeting of multi-national corporations. Massot envisioned Grant and Cole in the hitman roles, as it symbolised the tough business decisions they made on behalf of the band. The female passenger wearing a scarf with Peter Grant driving on a country road is his wife, Gloria. Massot had originally shot Grant walking a cameraman around a collection of antique cars, but this footage was quickly abandoned.
John Paul Jones was filmed first at home with his wife Mo, and reading Jack and the Beanstalk to his two daughters, Tamara and Jacinda, before receiving a call to join the band on their American concert. For his fantasy sequence, Jones initially wished to use footage from the original Doctor Syn film, but was prevented from doing so as this film was owned by Disney. Instead, his fantasy sequence involved a reinterpretation of the film. Jones portrays a masked gentleman known as "The Scarecrow," who travels at night on horseback with three others and returns home to Sussex, an ordinary family man. The three other horsemen with him are a reference to the other band members. Jimmy Page's girlfriend, Charlotte Martin, and baby daughter Scarlet Page can be briefly seen during the closing moments of this sequence, which was filmed in October 1973. The thematic music is "No Quarter."
Robert Plant was captured relaxing on his Welsh country farm with his wife Maureen, and children Karac and Carmen. His fantasy sequence involves him being a knight rescuing a fair maiden (played by Virginia Parker), who is a symbolic representation for his vision of the ideal—his personal search for the Holy Grail. Scenes from the sword fight were filmed at Raglan Castle in Wales while the sailing, horseback riding and beach scenes were shot at Aberdovey then Merionethshire and now Gwynedd, in October 1973. The thematic music consists of both "The Song Remains the Same" and "The Rain Song."
Jimmy Page is filmed sitting by a lake next to his 18th century manor at Plumpton, East Sussex, playing a hurdy-gurdy. The tune played is called "Autumn Lake" and the scene was filmed in October 1973. Page's fantasy role involved climbing up the face of a snow-capped mountain near Boleskine House, Loch Ness during the nights of a full moon on December 10 and 11, 1973. The act was meant to show Page on a quest of self-enlightenment, and deep understanding, by seeking out the Hermit, a character featured in many Tarot packs. The mythological Hermit is seen on the summit of the mountain; Staff of Wisdom in one hand, and in the other, the Lantern of Knowledge held out abreast over the world below. Being a Threshold Guardian, he represents an obstacle the seeker must overcome to achieve true enlightenment. At the culmination of Page's quest, he reaches out to touch The Hermit, only to discover paradoxically that the Hermit is himself. The Hermit features on the artwork of the untitled fourth album. The thematic music is "Dazed and Confused."
John Bonham was shot with his wife Pat and son Jason Bonham on their country estate, Old Hyde Farm in Worcestershire. It is interesting to note that part of his fantasy includes him spending time at home with his family. Bonham was known for falling into deep depressions while on tour away from his family. His heavy drinking, which ultimately resulted in his death, is partly attributed to his homesickness. The sequence also shows Bonham doing various work around his farm, showing off his livestock and cars, and jamming with his 5-year-old son while he plays a miniature drum kit. The game of snooker was shot at The Old Hyde Hotel and the Triumph riding near Blackpool. His fantasy sequence is the most straightforward of all the members—according to the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, Bonham simply chose to "be himself". The sequence ends with Bonham drag racing an AA Fueler at 260 mph at Santa Pod Raceway, Wellingborough, Northants, UK, in October 1973, and its thematic music is the instrumental "Moby Dick."
For its New York premiere, Cinema I was equipped with a quadrophonic sound system hired from Showco in Dallas. For the West Coast premieres, no such audio boosting was employed. These premieres, along with the London premiere, were attended by the members of the band.
The film performed well at the box office, grossing an estimated $10 million by 1977. Despite this, the film was reviewed negatively by critics for its perceived amateurish production and self-indulgent content, with the fantasy sequences in particular coming in for some of the harshest criticism. The film was particularly unsuccessful in the UK, where the band had not performed live for over two years as a result of being on tax exile. The band were thus unable to promote themselves at home, leaving them out of the public spotlight.
However, amongst fans the film has retained its popularity. Until the release of Led Zeppelin DVD in 2003, The Song Remains the Same was the only official live visual document that was accessible to followers of the band. It became a cult favourite at late-night movie houses, and its subsequent release on video and then DVD has ensured a growing base of fans.
Some members of the band regard the performances filmed at Madison Square Garden as merely average for the time, coming as they did at the end of a long and exhausting tour, but nonetheless representative of the generally high standard of the band's live performances during this era. In an interview he gave with New Musical Express in November 1976, Page stated:
The Song Remains The Same is not a great film, but there's no point in making excuses. It's just a reasonably honest statement of where we were at that particular time. It's very difficult for me to watch it now, but I'd like to see it in a year's time just to see how it stands up.
Page made good on his promise. When reviewing material for Led Zeppelin DVD in 2003, he decided to include footage from this same series of concerts.
However, other members of the band were less charitable, with Jones later admitting that the film was "a massive compromise" and Plant denouncing it as "a load of bollocks."
For all of its technical faults, many today view the film as an interesting historical document that captured the band at a particular point in time when its popularity was at around its peak, and, on a more general level, as an accurate representation of the excesses of the music and show-business industries in the 1970s. In a review published in Mojo magazine following the film's 2007 reissue, James McNair gave the film four out of five stars and wrote:
The good news is that Jimmy Page and fellow production wunderkind Kevin Shirley have been meticulous as regards quality control. The three-night, July 1973 stint at Madison square garden that fuelled the film's original soundtrack has been plundered afresh ... In truth, 2003's DVD package houses better live performances, but if you want to catch Zeppelin in all their preposterous, 'because we can' glory, The Song Remains ... is the one.
John Bonham – drums, percussion
John Paul Jones – bass guitar, keyboards
Jimmy Page – guitars, backing vocals, production, sound editing, mixing
Robert Plant – vocals
- Mob Rubout
- Mob Town Credits
- Country Life ("Autumn Lake")
- "Rock and Roll"
- "Black Dog"
- "Since I've Been Loving You"
- "No Quarter"
- Who's Responsible?
- "The Song Remains the Same"
- "The Rain Song"
- Fire and Sword
- Capturing the Castle
- Not Quite Backstage Pass
- "Dazed and Confused"
- Strung Out
- Magic in the Night
- Gate Crasher
- No Comment
- "Stairway to Heaven"
- "Moby Dick"
- Country Squire Bonham
- Grand Theft
- "Whole Lotta Love"
- End Credits (w/ "Stairway to Heaven")
On 20 November 2007, Warner Home Video released a new DVD edition of The Song Remains The Same for the first time with all fifteen songs from the original Madison Square Garden concerts. This coincided with the reissue of the accompanying soundtrack to the film, available on CD. The DVD features newly remixed and remastered sound, 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound, and includes more than 40 minutes of added bonus material, including never-before-released performance footage of "Over the Hills and Far Away" and "Celebration Day", plus performances of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "The Ocean", a rare 1976 BBC interview with Robert Plant and Peter Grant, vintage TV footage from the Drake Hotel robbery during the New York concert stand, and a Cameron Crowe radio show. This version was released on standard DVDs as well as Blu-ray and HD DVD.
A Collector's Edition box set including a T-shirt with the original album cover, placards from the New York shows, and several glossy photographs was released as well.
Due to legal complications, the band decided not to change the video portion of the original movie for the rerelease. Instead, sound engineer Kevin Shirley created an entirely new mix of the three 1973 Madison Square Garden concerts so that the audio portion of the film would better match the on-screen visuals. The audio on the new CD release is nearly identical to the soundtrack of the new DVD release. One difference is that the songs included on the CDs that were not featured in the original movie are included as bonus tracks on the DVD.