While at SXSW, I sat down with Director Peter Michael Dowd to talk about his new documentary Mr. Jimmy, about Japanese musician Akio Sakurai (aka Mr. Jimmy) who has modeled himself after the legendary Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. We were joined at the interview by the subject himself, as we found out how the pair met, and talk about the music and the trials and tribulations documented in the film. And of course, the mastery of Led Zeppelin.
*Quotes from Mr. Jimmy with an asterisk have been spoken by a translator.
Peter, starting with you, can you tell me a little bit about how you discovered Mr. Jimmy and what led you to devote what was no doubt many years of your life to this project?
Peter Michael Dowd: Many people have asked me when I started making the film, and I think I started making it when I was 15 years old.
I was driving to school in Boston, and I was a Freshman, and a Senior pulled out a white cassette tape… usually his music was absolute shit. Poison or Winger or something… not good. But one day he put on this cassette tape, and “Whole Lotta Love” came on, and I just fell in love. It’s really been one of the great loves of my lifetime. As that riff comes in, I thought it was a genius composition. And then the bridge comes along and the band takes this perfect composition, and they throw it in the trash, and they go into Robert Plant having an orgasm. And it just made a searing mark in my brain that to this day is still burning away.
And then as for Mr. Jimmy, it was when I stumbled across him on YouTube, in a darkened Tokyo club, performing a 1979 Knebworth Festival version of Led Zeppelin’s music. And I recognised the yellow guitar strap, and the blue shirt, and was it the linen pants you were wearing that day?
Mr. Jimmy: I think it was the cotton.
Peter Michael Dowd: Because Page changed his pants for the August 4th versus the August 11th 1979 show, as you no doubt well know *laughs*, and so I recognised that attention to detail… not just in the costume but in the tone. The way he moved. Just from that one clip. And so I clicked again and again and I found his performances of the 77 period and others… and I realised this isn’t just a great musician, he’s also this method actor, he’s a musical historian. And also an amazing fan, but on another level than me.
And I thought, there’s a story here with this man’s journey. There’s a movie here. And as someone who was recognising this level of detail, I realised if there was a filmmaker to tell this story, maybe it should be me. Because I realised that that yellow guitar strap wasn’t random. The blue shirt is not random. Everything is a choice, everything has been studied. And so I really tried to make a film that reflects the 360 degrees of study and devotion that has developed over the last 35 years by this guy.
So how did you reach out to convince him to let you document his life?
Peter Michael Dowd: I think sometimes the best decisions you make in life are the ones you make without using much of your brain. I mean it was almost like a physical instinct. I just saw this footage and I felt so compelled. I had to find this guy. I’d never been to Japan, I had no plan or money. But I just knew that I had to find this story and figure out a way to tell it. So I wrote an e-mail to his website in Japan. And I said “I’m a filmmaker, I’m so moved by what you’re doing, I’m a lifelong Zeppelin fan, I feel like I have an amazing story and I’d like to share it with the world. Maybe is there a way we can work together?”
And so his amazing wife Junko, who’s in the film, who was one of the great architects of the dragon suit, she kindly wrote back, saying “You know Peter, you’re a really lucky guy, because he’s just moved to LA, to join Led Zepagain”. So the fact that had happened, I just thought that it was something from above, it just felt like it was destiny. So we just started.
Mr. Jimmy*: Junko told me when she got the e-mail, and she said that it was so polite, and she got a positive impression from it. So I got really excited about it, because I’d just moved to the US, and I was trying to figure it all out. So I was very excited to have received an e-mail from a filmmaker in Los Angeles.
And Akio, what was the experience like for you being filmed and having your life dissected in this way?
Mr. Jimmy*: Being filmed I got really shy and I honestly felt embarrassed sometimes, because Peter would film my house and my wife and my life and everything. But it also was such a cool experience and I got really excited every time he came to film me.
There’s a point in the film where you kind of have that moment that every musician has. Almost rock bottom, wondering why you’re doing it anymore. I think you say something along the lines of “maybe people just want to listen to Jukebox bands”. What was it like having that part of your life documented? It’s a sad part of the story.
Mr. Jimmy*: It was a hard part of my life, but it was also a part of my history, so although I have a band and things are better now, it’s never ending, I’m still trying to get better. But during the hard times I never gave up, so I hope that throughout the movie the audience can get the message that if you don’t give up you can achieve it. So just keep dreaming.
So I feel so honoured to be a part of a movie that can tell the audience that message. And also, Jimmy Page is just too great, and so it’s not an easy process. And I knew that this would not be an easy way. I knew that when I was having hard times and hitting rock bottom. But I already knew it would always be a challenge.
And now you’re touring the world – you came down to Australia last year with Jason Bonham, which is beautifully documented in the film – and I know you have a lot more touring coming up as part of his band too. What has that experience been like so far?
Mr. Jimmy*: Jason Bonham is the son of the great, late drummer from Led Zeppelin, John Bonham, and Jason has played with Jimmy Page, so I feel like in a way I am becoming Jimmy Page by playing with him. It’s always fun to play Zeppelin everywhere I go, all over the world. Though the vision that we have as the Mr. Jimmy band, is different to the vision that Jason has, but the members of the band are very professional, and I feel very honoured to play with such professional players, and I think any guitarist who’s a fan of Jimmy Page would love to play with Jason Bonham – so I feel very honoured to be in the band.
Peter, from the start to the end of the film, you let the camera linger on Akio’s performances – in other films, they may have been cut apart in the edit room, but not here. Can you talk a little about the decision to really take the time to show off Mr. Jimmy in action – and that goes for the footage of Led Zeppelin you use, too.
Peter Michael Dowd: That was the foundation of the whole thing. I love music, I love rock n roll. I love Led Zeppelin. And I’ve seen so many music documentaries where they’ll play 15 seconds of an album and then will.i.am or some other celebrity will come in and tell you “oh this Rolling Stones record is great, let me tell you why”. Don’t fucking tell me why the record was great, just play the record! Or show the band! You don’t need anyone to tell you that Led Zeppelin is genius, or that he’s playing it so great. Just open with two minutes of him playing the beautiful September 4th, 1970 version of “Dazed and Confused” and let people bathe in it. Let people live in it. Let it wash over them. It’s not a sound bite. It’s not 12 bars. Let’s give you 48 bars. Let’s live in it.
And that’s what Jimmy Page is all about. The studio version of “Dazed and Confused” is 8 minutes long. It wasn’t long enough. Live it became 26 minutes, 28 minutes. Sometimes even up to 45 minutes. That’s what the music is all about. So I wanted to pay Mr. Jimmy the same amount of respect that he shows to Jimmy Page. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to capture the sound in a way that would show the difference, and the detail… so if you listen to the opening, that’s performed on the HIWATT amp, so we wanted to capture that sonically in a way that you could tell the difference between that and the show in Tokyo which was Madison Square Garden ’73, where we’re using the Marshall Amps.
At the end of the day, this whole thing is a tribute to Jimmy Page, and his singular contribution to music history that is eternal. And you’ve got to capture that, and let the music be long. And everyone kept saying, well with the music, if you want permission you should keep it really short, but I said “I feel like Mr. Page understands what Akio is doing, and if we’re actually going to be approved, it’s because we’re not cutting it.” Don’t fuck it up. Don’t butcher their children. I worked on this film for 3 1/2 years, but Jimmy Page has worked for 50 years. It’s his legacy. It’s his baby. So I made the best version as I could for Akio, for Jimmy Page, and it’s up to Page and Plant to see if we meet the mark of their incredible standard. So far, we amazingly have received approval for festival rights, which is a blessing, honestly, from Mr. Page and Mr. Plant and Warner, and hopefully we can take it beyond that. But I felt if you cut the music, you are literally butchering the music. So that was the foundation of the film.
And you mentioned the footage of the band we used. Again, if we had permission for the footage, I wanted to do it justice. So for example The Song Remains The Same, that’s one of the few four shots of the band – which it why I used that. Because you can see all four members playing together on stage. And take it through a verse, just because you have to understand where Mr. Jimmy’s inspiration comes from, and the singularity of their creation. So no snip-snip, cut-cut. I’d rather have 2 long pieces rather than 22 snippets where you see nothing and learn nothing.
And Akio, that was the footage that did inspire you originally. And now you’re on screen inspiring another generation. What do you hope people take away from your journey and the experience of watching the film?
Mr. Jimmy*: Today you can easily create Marshall or HIWATT sounds through digital tools, but I think that it’s important to use actual amplifiers, and do it in an analogue way. It’s in the movie too, the first part of the movie, Peter shows what kind of gear and equipment I use, and I think it’s really important to use such specific equipment instead of doing it digitally or manually. It’s not like learning how to play the guitar, but learning how to paint the tone, and that’s what I want to inspire. To create the tone, just like the 60s and 70s, and that’s what I want to tell the audience.
And finally, I have to make mention of the music you chose to play in the film that wasn’t Zeppelin… there’s a lot of amazing Blues standards in there, the sort of music that Zeppelin would cite as their own inspiration.
Peter Michael Dowd: Honestly, it’s the music I love anyway. Jimmy knows that if he’s riding in my car he’s going to hear Muddy Waters… But I definitely wanted you to be in that world, the world of Zeppelin and their inspirations. And also it’s just amazing to cut to that stuff. To cut to Howlin’ Wolf or John Lee Hooker, or Muddy Waters, that’s just a dream. Of course my music supervisor was telling me I was going to be writing a lot of cheques I couldn’t afford, why don’t you have someone score it? I don’t think Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf are available! I mean you talk about the “Tone”. John Lee Hooker’s tone… yeah good luck, get some guy to try and recreate that now. It’s just appropriate to be livin’ in that world. That’s where it’s at. Jimmy Page took that and then took it into another universe. And maybe now a fan will hear that and go back and discover Johnny Otis or Muddy Waters and that’s really cool.
Mr. Jimmy screened at SXSW earlier this month. For more details about the film, and to find out where it’s going to screen next, head to their Official Website.