At one point in Celebration Day, the new film of Led Zeppelin‘s 2007 reunion concert in London, the camera stays long and tight on Jimmy Page‘s hands as they execute the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven” on the six-string neck of his double-neck Gibson guitar. It is one of rock’s most iconic riffs, played in full and close-up by the composer, at one of his band’s greatest and most important shows.
“With Led Zeppelin, it has always been that mystique of how the music is done – how it works, why it works,” Page says on the phone from London a couple of weeks before Celebration Day‘s worldwide theatrical premiere on October 17th. “The closer you can get in on that and the more lingering it is, the better.”
Celebration Day, which will be commercially released in various audio and visual formats on November 19th, is nothing more or less than Zeppelin’s entire two-hour performance on December 10th, 2007, at London’s O2 Arena. The concert, a benefit and tribute to the late Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun, was the first full Zeppelin show by Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones since the death of drummer John Bonham in 1980. Bonham’s son, Jason, took his father’s place for the night, which is shown without backstage footage and includes minimal shots of the ecstatic audience. Instead, director Dick Carruthers – who shot the concert with more than a dozen cameras – provides extended close-ups of the band members in action: Plant in bluestrance moan during “Since I’ve Been Loving You”; Jones threading the folk-rock gallop of “Ramble On” with low-end countermelodies; everyone turning to Jason in admiration during his volcanic solo at the end of “Rock and Roll.”
Celebration Day is “almost like being onstage with us,” Jones says. “We always had that interaction,” he adds, referring to Zeppelin’s legendary concert prowess in the Seventies. “But nobody could see it, because the lighting wasn’t there.” Before the O2 show, Jones notes, “I remember Dick saying in one of the early meetings, ‘I’m going to need 14 cameras.’ Everybody went, ‘What?’ It paid off.”
Page recalls walking off stage after the reunion concert feeling “really high. That’s the truth. It was a serious test, and we passed it, all of us. And we had an extraordinary communion on the stage. That’s alive and well when you see it.” But it was quite a while – Page can’t remember how long – before he saw a rough cut of Carruthers’ footage (“We didn’t rush into the editing suite to have it out for Christmas”).
In fact, Plant and Jones viewed that cut first. “We came away raving,” Jones says. “It was very fitting to the experience. We called Jimmy and said, ‘You’ve gotta see this.'”
“The thing about Led Zeppelin was that it was always four musicians at the top of their game, but they could play like a band,” Page says. “Even in the first couple of rehearsal days, running up to the O2, we were playing pretty good. But we really wanted to shine as a band.” He cites the set list’s opening sequence – from the surprise opener, “Good Times Bad Times,” from 1969’s Led Zeppelin, into “Ramble On” and the tortuous crunch of “Black Dog.” “I wanted people to feel, ‘They’re taking this seriously.’
“And I have to tell you, the rehearsals were all quite different,” Page says, “so much in that Zeppelin spirit and character.” To prove it, a deluxe edition of the DVD will include footage from the band’s only full-scale production rehearsal before the O2 concert. “You get the urgency of that night, but also the determination that was in rehearsal.”
Inevitably, Celebration Day has set off more reunion talk. At a London press conference announcing the film, Plant raved about the O2 performance: “To get back in the middle of that music was a spectacular experience.” But he and Page evaded questions about additional shows. When asked if the movie marks the end of Zeppelin, once and for all, Jones – who is busy writing an opera and collaborating with Robyn Hitchcock and the Norwegian group Supersilent – responds, “When I move house, I never look back at the house and go, ‘Oh, that’s the last moment I’ll see there.’ I always move forward.”
“That’s a good answer,” Page says, laughing. But he is more direct. “I think if there had been any more concerts to be done, we’d already be talking about them. So I don’t see it.” Celebration Day, he adds, “is a testament to what we did in 2007. There it is.”
This story is from the October 25th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.