Everyone knows the definition of a tribute band. But is there a difference between that and a “revival” band? Whatever one chooses to call it, when is such a project a money-making exercise in nostalgia — and when is it a sincere, concerted (pun intended) effort to recreate and sustain a genre of music that suddenly feels on life support? And exactly how short were those sleeves on Jimmy Page’s open-chested jacket from 1973?
These and other questions are addressed and grappled with in Mr. Jimmy, Peter Michael Dowd’s weirdly engrossing documentary about Akio “Jimmy” Sakurai, a Japanese guitarist obsessed with Led Zeppelin and, in particular, Jimmy Page. As we see in clips spanning several decades, Sakurai has long devoted himself to looking and performing just like his hero, down to replicating Page’s monstrous riffs, curly shag, duck-walky stage moves, and elegant slouch. In the opening sections of Mr. Jimmy, titled after his stage name, we see Sakurai meet separately with an amplifier expert, a costume designer and an embroidery seamstress so that the stitches in his jackets and pants, even the types of holes in his guitar pickups, are as close as physically possible to the real thing. (Examining one of Page’s vests in a film clip, he points to a part of the garb and tells his designer, “There’s a crease.”) The only thing missing is Page’s obsession with occult master Aleister Crowley, but maybe that was left on the cutting-room floor. “There is no ‘me’ to begin with,” Sakurai says, earnestly. “I have nothing but him.”
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After 20 years in Japanese Led Zep cover bands, Sakurai, who once worked as a kimono salesman, has a life-altering experience when the actual Page shows up unexpectedly at a Tokyo bar in 2012, where his band Mr. Jimmy is playing. Watching intently, Page gives them a standing ovation and poses for photos with Sakurai, all seen in the movie. With Page’s nod of approval, Sukurai’s wife insists he take advantage of this wind in his Zep sails. So, in spite of not speaking a word of English, he moves to Los Angeles (yes, “going to California”), where he lands a gig in Led Zepagain, one of the more prominent such tribute bands in the country.
Without giving away too much, let’s just say that Mr. Jimmy takes a few unexpected turns after Sakurai relocates. From a pizza-parlor gig to a band girlfriend who briefly manages them to another manager who compares them to an act at Disneyland, the film taps into its share of Spinal moments. But to its credit, Mr. Jimmy isn’t just another peek into the bizarro world of show business.
Sakurai doesn’t merely want to be a “jukebox,” in his word, and recreate Zeppelin’s monolithic catalog note for studio note. In his quest for authenticity, he insists that Led Zepagain reproduce Zep’s stage shows. That Led Zeppelin was a more feral, more careening, and more self-indulgent band than the one heard on record. If Page wanted to take a 20-minute solo, jam on some plodding blues, or saw away at his strings with a violin bow, he’d do it. Although he seems like the most studious and least crazy aficionado you’d ever meet, Sakurai is clearly drawn to this wilder, less inhibited side of Zep. Studying bootlegs, he prods his Led Zepagain bandmates into becoming more of a “revival” group — copying particular performances of certain songs from specific gigs, and then entire shows themselves, whether they include “Kashmir” or not. As Sakurai says in several such pronouncements, “To play this music in a lazy, lackluster way would be inexcusable.”
As he learns, though, not everyone else agrees with this approach. At times, you feel for his bandmates, whether in Led Zepagain or his own subsequent band, who struggle to imitate every single bass note, vocal shriek or drum pattern. Meanwhile, at least one promoter asks them why the “Page” in the band is playing an endless guitar solo instead of sticking with the repertoire. “Most of the time, people just want to hear the hits,” says Swan Montgomery (now there’s a stage name), the “Robert Plant” of Led Zepagain, and he’s probably not wrong.
What drives Sakurai to imitate Page and take this extreme approach to reproduction? The film doesn’t quite nail that part, beyond revealing that his father made kimonos (and had a similar eye for detail) and that hearing “Stairway to Heaven” as a teenager blew his mind. But in our current universe, where followers give themselves over to their entertainment or culture-warrior heroes with undying devotion and zero questioning, his devotion to honoring this particular house of the old is sweet, almost noble.
Eventually, Sakurai ends up with a dream gig in Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening, formed by the son of the late John Bonham. But along the way Sakurai grapples with the very notion of a tribute band and whether he is being too, shall we say, detail-oriented. “If the band doesn’t follow me, we won’t achieve our dreams,” he says at one point. But what exactly is that dream? To lose himself in another person? To keep this type of music alive for future generations the same way that early-music classical concerts recreate baroque or medieval performances?
Had Mr. Jimmy been released a decade or two ago, we may not have been pondering such questions. But the end of the classic-rock era is truly upon us all now, and not just in the spate of farewell tours that have continued into this year. Elder-statesperson deaths are hardly new — the 2016 trifecta of David Bowie, Prince, and Glenn Frey was jarring — but this year alone, the death toll in classic rock has been staggering. We’ve lost Tina Turner, David Crosby, Jeff Beck, Robbie Robertson and Gordon Lightfoot, not to mention Christine McVie late last year. The next five to ten years will be even more daunting, as one old-world titan after another disappears before our eyes and ears.
Whether Dowd knew it or not, that harsh reality underscores Mr. Jimmy. (Speaking of obsessive, he’s said to have worked on this movie for eight years.) You may shake your head in bemused wonderment watching Sakurai demonstrate the slightly varied ways that the strummed chords of “Stairway to Heaven” were played on different tours throughout the Seventies. But once the originals who created all this music are no longer casting their shadows over arenas and stadiums, people like Sakurai may be the encore we’ll have to accept.
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