Becoming Led Zeppelin, an all-access documentary, will debut in Venice

Led Zeppelin
(Image credit: ay Dickman/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The first Led Zeppelin documentary to be officially endorsed by the band has been completed. Directed by Bernard MacMahon, Becoming Led Zeppelin enjoys unprecedented access to the band, and comprises newly filmed interviews with its surviving members and a trove of archive footage.

Becoming Led Zeppelin was co-written and produced by Allison McGourty, who worked with MacMahon on his award-winning American Epic documentary, and will make its world premiere out of competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival (1-11 September).

“Becoming Led Zeppelin is a film that no one thought could be made,“ said MacMahon. “The band’s meteoric rise to stardom was swift and virtually undocumented. Through an intense search across the globe and years of restoration of the visual and audio archive found, this story is finally able to be told.”

There are, of course, a number of superb films documenting Led Zeppelin's greatness. Released in 1976, The Song Remains The Same offered a helter-skelter presentation of their legendary three-night stint at Madison Square Garden, spliced with surreal vignettes and finished in post-production at Shepparton Studios in the UK. 

Led Zeppelin: Dazed And Confused charted the band's rise with a selection of talking heads and a number of audio interviews with Page and Plant, the latter speaking poignantly about the late drummer John Bonham and describing him as "the emulsifier" who held the band together.

But until MacMahon's project, which was announced in 2019, there has never been a documentary that sat the band down to put that archive footage into context, and chart the rise of the band from its beginnings playing clubs to the conquering the world. Here's hoping that it offers a closer look at Page's electric guitar collection in the process.

Through an intense search across the globe and years of restoration of the visual and audio archive found, this story is finally able to be told

Bernard MacMahon

MacMahon exclusively used original prints and negatives, gathering over 70,000 frames footage and restoring it, and has shot “fantasia sequences“ inspired by Singin' In The Rain to complement unseen live footage. The film's tagline reads: “Before the stairway and the dragon, before the gold and the girls, there were simply four men and their love of music.”

“With Becoming Led Zeppelin my goal was to make a documentary that looks and feels like a musical, said MacMahon. “I wanted to weave together the four diverse stories of the band members before and after they formed their group with large sections of their story advanced using only music and imagery and to contextualize the music with the locations where it was created and the world events that inspired it. 

“I used only original prints and negatives, with over 70,000 frames of footage manually restored, and devised fantasia sequences, inspired by Singin’ In The Rain, layering unseen performance footage with montages of posters, tickets and travel to create a visual sense of the freneticism of their early career.”

While Led Zeppelin have tended to keep their own counsel on the band's story, the 2018 release of the photobook Led Zeppelin By Led Zeppelin was a sign that things might be changing, and was an essential purchase for any fan. And with Page releasing his Anthology book last year, he sat down for an in-depth interview with Total Guitar and reflected on the band's history.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin III, a time when Page avoided doing any interviews, he was asked what he would have said about the album at the time and said it was all about doing something different.

“I would have brought people’s attention to Since I’ve Been Loving You, no doubt about it,“ said Page. “Because nobody had actually approached blues up that point like that. Everybody was playing blues but nobody had gone that sort of extra mile.“

“Things like That’s The Way are bloody brilliant, you know? There’s just so much good stuff on it, and every number that we recorded was always different, it always had its own character. If anything started to sound like something else that we’d done before, we’d just stop doing it.

“We wouldn’t be doing recordings that sounded like we’d recorded it before, like a secondary version of something else, like Whole Lotta Love Mark Two. We didn’t do that.“

Becoming Led Zeppelin is awaiting a worldwide release date but expect some other film festivals to pick it up. As for the Led Zeppelin, well, Jimmy Page is, of course, an odds-on favourite for a podium finish in MusicRadar's GOAT hunt, listed in the shortlist of Best Pre-1980 Guitarist. You can view the list and cast your vote here.

Read more: Led Zeppelin II: Jimmy Page lesson 

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.