So did they or didn’t they?
A great documentary does two things. It tells a story, sometimes a story that no one else is willing to tell. And it answers a question. Filmmaker Jeff Krulik sets out to tackle both in Led Zeppelin Played Here. Krulik tries to determine if Led Zeppelin actually played at the Wheaton Youth Center on January 20, 1969. While his exploration does not actually answer the question, Krulik takes the audience on a humorous and entertaining journey to get that point.
For many January 20, 1969 was the day in which Richard Nixon was inaugurated as President. However, for many, this cold, cold day was framed in protest. There were alternative inauguration events happening all over the Washington, D. C. area. For others it was a day like all others, where teenagers hung out at the local youth center. And according to some, Led Zeppelin performed to a small crowd at the Wheaton Youth Center in Maryland.
Yet, there are no ticket stubs, no posters, no photos from fans, and no paper trail. Krulik does however find a small collection of eyewitnesses who remember being in the gymnasium listening to a little-known rock band. Perhaps all of this is because, as co-promoter and local DJ Barry Richards tells Krulik, the show was a last-minute deal. Many recount that Richards hardly ever promoted concerts with posters and flyers, he used his radio station to get the word out.
For those who were there, they offer some entertaining, if not colorful, details. It was the smallest audience Led Zeppelin ever played to. Some say 20, others 50. It was the lowest-paying gig, and the manager got in Barry’s face about getting gas money to get to the next gig. The band may have played as the New Yardbirds, as no one would have known who Led Zeppelin was. New Yardbirds was also the working name for the group as they formed into Led Zeppelin.
Krulik is able to talk to a few of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin while at the Kennedy Center Honors. But they recalled nothing of playing at Wheaton.
While standing in line to see this film at the Virginia Film Festival, I listened as those around me recalled all the places where Zeppelin did play. These strangers were reliving their adolescence and its soundtrack. These were adults whose lives were shaped by this music. And just as Krulik seems to be content for his film to reside in a place of mystery instead of hard facts, this crowd found the film sufficient, if nothing else, to relive the glory days. It was for them an act of remembrance.
These were the days of amateur 8-mm film and Instamatic photos (but apparently none were present on January 29, 1969 at the Wheaton Youth Center). Krulik makes use of these generational and cultural elements, which at times makes the sound and video quality slightly rough. However, it also adds to the charm of this film, which does another thing that all good documentary films do, it develops a conversation.
The conversational tone invites the conversation to continue, as it did when the film ended. As the audience piled out into the lobby of the theater, people who had just met were sharing their own stories and memories of seeing Led Zeppelin and other bands play. While Led Zeppelin Played Here concludes in a sense of ambiguity, it starts and continues the storytelling of rock veterans.
Even if you don’t believe a word of it.