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Led Zeppelin loosens its grip on using its music in films

December 03, 2012|By Glenn Whipp
  • Led Zeppelin licensed songs for two films considered contenders in this year's Oscars race.
Led Zeppelin licensed songs for two films considered contenders in this…

While cutting “Silver Linings Playbook” with editor Jay Cassidy, director David O. Russell was watching the scene in which Bradley Cooper’s bipolar protagonist Pat Solitano melts down in his parents’ attic looking for a copy of his wedding video. The frantic search had been triggered by a highly charged first evening with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman, Pat subconsciously realizes, who might derail him from his manic mission to reunite with his estranged wife.

Russell wanted to marry the dialogue and visuals to a piece of music, heightening its cinematic appeal. And he found what he calls the perfect bipolar song, Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be.”

“It starts so gentle and loving and then gets really loud and crazy and then gets quiet and gentle again,” Russell says. “It was like a theme song written for Pat.”

One problem: Led Zeppelin has been notoriously picky about allowing its music to be used in films. The band members' reluctance has lessened a bit over the years, but their asking price remains high, often in the neighborhood of a seven-figure fee. That kind of payout isn’t possible for a modestly budgeted movie like Russell’s.

And even if you have the money, as Ben Affleck did when he approached the band to use its sludgy anthem “When the Levee Breaks” for his period hostage drama “Argo,” you basically have but one option: Dogged persistence.

“You have to be like a man determined to marry somebody,” Russell says, laughing. “And you keep coming back humbly, and humbly asking, ‘May I please show you the film? Do you know how much this means?’ It’s a slow process, and you have to go about it passionately. Otherwise, you won’t get the song.”

Both “Silver Linings Playbook” and "Argo" are considered contenders in this year's Oscars race.

When Affleck shot the scene in “Argo” depicting the hostages’ last night in Tehran before their escape attempt, he didn’t know what song he’d use behind the footage. He filmed Tate Donovan putting the tone arm down on the first track of a vinyl record. In the editing room, Affleck and editor William Goldenberg tried some 40 different songs, settling first on The Eagles’ “Hotel California” before deciding that the lyrics “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” were too on the nose.

Affleck had always leaned toward using Zeppelin, and after trying several songs, including “Kashmir,” he settled on “When the Levee Breaks.”

“It’s got an ominous feeling, but it’s celebratory in a sense as well,” Affleck says. “Zeppelin, to me, is the greatest rock 'n' roll band. People say, ‘The Beatles, the Stones.’ No. It’s Zeppelin.”

The band eventually signed off on the song, but had one request. Since “Levee” is the fourth song on side two of “Led Zeppelin IV,” they asked Affleck if he could digitally change the shot so it looked like Donovan was putting the tone arm down at the correct spot on the record.

“So not only did we have to pay for the song,” Affleck laughs, “we had to pay for an effects shot. You have to appreciate their attention to detail, though.”

David Chase’s coming-of-age, rock 'n' roll film “Not Fade Away” doesn’t contain any Zeppelin songs, as it’s largely set in the mid-'60s, before the band was formed. But it does have 52 musical cues, including four each from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, meaning that 10% of the movie’s budget went to music rights alone. And that’s at the discount rate that the movie’s music supervisor, E Street Band guitarist and “Sopranos” alum Steven Van Zandt, was able to procure, thanks to his connections in the business.

“When we made the deal with the Beatles’ and Stones’ people, especially the Stones people, we told them we would not use the big hits,” says Chase, who used the Rolling Stones’ music on several episodes of “The Sopranos” as well. (“I could have scored the whole ‘Sopranos’ using just Stones songs, he says.)

Chase did stick with lesser-known songs such as “Tell Me” and the Stones’ cover of bluesman Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You” ... until he hit on a late inspiration that required the band’s signature hit, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

“That wasn’t in the script,” Chase says. “I needed a guitar riff that went along with living in an age when everything could be destroyed in an instant. I needed ‘Satisfaction.’ Thankfully, we got the rights. The right song means everything.”

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