Shot over three nights in Madison Square Garden in 1973 (with additional footage later being filmed on a sound stage designed to look like Madison Square Garden), the film features Led Zeppelin sounding tired and bored. Robert Plant asks, “Does anyone remember laughter?” during Stairway to Heaven while the legendary Jimmy Page has a look on his face like he already knows that, at some point in the future, he’s going to end up playing back-up to Sean Combs on Saturday Night Live. Even John Bonham’s drum solo seems self-indulgent and uninspired. Meanwhile, John Paul Jones’s clothing changes from shot-to-shot, a reminder that Jones was the only member of the band not to wear the same thing during all three nights of shooting. The film looks bland and the soundtrack doesn’t capture the Zeppelin sound. Instead, it sounds muddy, to the extent that those not already familiar with Led Zeppelin will wonder what the big deal is.
The good news is that you can dislike The Song The Remains The Same and still be a Led Zeppelin fan. The band reportedly hated the film, feeling that it captured them at their worst. Robert Plant, who unsuccessfully tried to get the infamous “Does anyone remember laughter?” line removed from the film, called the film “bollocks” while John Paul Jones called it a “massive compromise.” In 1976, when the film was first released, Jimmy Page told New Musical Express, “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.”
The film also features fantasy sequences, in which the members of the band and their managers get a chance to show what’s going on in their minds and how they viewed themselves in 1973. The band’s managers appears as gangsters and start the film off by gunning everyone down. Robert Plant is a knight, in a sequence that inadvertently brings to mind the travels of Brave Sir Robin in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Jimmy Page is a hermit who reads tarot cards. John Paul Jones is chased on horseback. The only member of the band whose image is helped by his fantasy sequence is John Bonham, who comes across as a likable, down-to-Earth bloke who likes retiring to his farm and driving fast cars. Knowing that Bonham would die just seven years later makes his fantasy sequence especially poignant to watch. His son, Jason Bonham, appears, drumming on a child-sized drum kit. Years later, of course, Bonham would play drums during several Led Zeppelin reunions.
For years, The Song Remains The Same was the only official video footage of Led Zeppelin performing and, flaws and all, that does give it some importance. The Song Remains The Same is also said to have been one of the major inspirations for This Is Spinal Tap so everything worked out in the end.