Led Zeppelin is often discussed in terms of their enormity. They were the world's biggest rock band; they sang about mountains and epics and laid down the hammer of the gods. However, according to Dick Carruthers, who directed the band's state-of-the-art new concert film, Celebration Day, the real key to their enduring success lies in the little things, especially the intimacy between Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.
"Before we'd even shot a frame, I had an innate knowledge of what they do," Carruthers tells Rolling Stone, calling in while he stops for a pint at the historic Old Bull and Bush pub near his London home. "The way Robert stands, the way Jimmy and Robert get together on those certain bluesy bits, the way they cluster around the drum kit... How they communicate onstage is brilliant – the winks and nods, [like] 'Fuckin' hell, just about got through that one, didn't we?' There were a couple of those."
Carruthers is one of the most trusted concert filmmakers in the business, having shot feature-length films for Oasis, the White Stripes, the Killers and many more. He filmed Celebration Day, which screens in theaters across America tomorrow and is released commercially next month, during the band's one-off reunion in 2007 at London's O2 Arena. He was introduced to Jimmy Page a decade ago, after directing The Who Live at the Royal Albert Hall; Page wanted to sort through unseen footage of his old band in its prime, and Carruthers jumped at the chance. "I said, 'Let's go tomorrow,'" he recalls. "'I know where you live – I'll pick you up.'"
They spent a year and a half together making the double-disc Led Zeppelin DVD with vintage footage from London, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Working with film from two or three cameras, as concerts were shot in those days, Carruthers couldn't help but think of what might have been. "If only I'd been there with 15 cameras and my crack ninja team," he says.
When the band agreed to the O2 reunion, a benefit for the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, Carruthers got his chance. Though the cameras were there to provide footage for the live video screen, future production was not ruled out. "It was just absurd not to record everything," Carruthers notes. "And if you're going to do it, let's do it right. It's Led Zeppelin – there wasn't a lot of corner-cutting."
Celebration Day keeps it simple, training its gaze on the three surviving band members and drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late member John Bonham. In editing the footage, the director wanted the crowd to be incidental, no more than an occasional reminder of just how eagerly the reunion was anticipated.
"It should be like a theater play – it takes five minutes to get in, and the fourth wall disappears and you are just there. You're absorbed by them, the performance, the music and that's it," Carruthers says.
The set opens with "Good Times Bad Times," the tumultuous opening statement from the band's debut album in 1969. "That's a very complex piece of music," says Carruthers, "and they go straight in. There's a beautiful paradox there – first song, first album, but right at the deep end musically." Over two hours, the band incorporated some of its best-known material with deeper album tracks, such as "For Your Life" (from 1976's Presence), which they'd never played live before. "What an amazing, staccato, spiky song!" gushes Carruthers. He did, however, have to urge the band to placate their fans. "I do remember a funny discussion about 'Stairway to Heaven,'" he adds, "with me saying, 'Look, guys, you've got to play it!'"
Though Page and Plant have routinely dismissed calls for further reunion shows, they still share a tight, affectionate bond, Carruthers says. "They're terrific company. They have great camaraderie, like your school buddies – you can always be yourself, and there's a lot of laughter and bawdy chat. That's absolutely what it's like."
Onstage, the band reminded him of "a masterful downhill skier," he says. "You can't know how it's going to turn out when you jump out of the blocks at the top of the mountain, but when you come up to each corner, you remember it, and you nail it."
In lieu of another reunion show, Carruthers says, "This is how the band will be seen and remembered. I wonder if I shouldn't say that, but it's probably true."