Stairway to Wheaton 

Led Zeppelin Played Here delves into a mystery

Human memory, as all sorts of studies have shown, is generally untrustworthy. Real memories can easily be replaced with false ones. And sometimes, people just want to believe that something happened a particular way, so much that they don't realize they're lying.

The 2013 documentary Led Zeppelin Played Here, directed by Jeff Krulik, finds its tension in the question of just how reliable memory is. "That's how I remember it, anyway," says more than one person interviewed by Krulik, who is most well known for the short doc Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

Led Zeppelin Played Here introduces us to a small-town legend about a snowy January night in 1969, the same day Nixon was inaugurated, when Led Zeppelin played Wheaton Community Center in Maryland to a small crowd of teens who had no clue what they were witnessing. The band had just released its first album and was still fairly obscure. Months after the alleged Wheaton show, Led Zeppelin would go on to play now-legendary concerts with groups like The Who and become one of the best-selling bands in history.

But did Led Zep really play Wheaton? No ticket stubs, posters or photos remain to prove whether it happened. Krulik grabs a camera and interviews people who remember hearing secondhand about the concert the next day at school, and a couple people who insist they were there, including a woman who gives a suspiciously detailed blow-by-blow, demonstrating, "And this is where Jimmy Page stood, and here's where Robert Plant was..."

During the course of Krulik's thorough investigation, the film revels in '60s kitsch and memorabilia, and gives historic atmosphere with clips of the Nixon inaugural ball and lots of amateur footage of bands (seeing Jethro Tull in 16 mm is pretty hilarious). Krulik meets a lot of music producers, executives and fans who try to recall the cannabis-infused events of 1969. "I don't know, man, all the pot we was smokin'," says one old-timer when asked if he remembers Zeppelin playing Wheaton.

click to enlarge Led Zeppelin Played Here, Missoula, Top Hat, documentary, film
  • I can’t quit you, babe.

It's perfectly plausible that Zeppelin played Wheaton, as Krulik finds. Posters from other shows prove the band was in the area at the time. Wheaton and other community centers in the region did host acts like Rod Stewart, Dr. John, Rare Earth and Brownsville Station. Iggy Pop played the Wheaton Center, too, much to the chagrin of a venue staffer, who says in a phone interview that it was a mess to clean up all the peanut butter that Iggy smeared everywhere.

But for all the people who swear up and down that they were there for the Led Zeppelin show, or that they heard from someone who was there, others in the film present perfectly valid arguments for why it wouldn't have been possible. A local music columnist says he would have wrote about it in his show listings if it had really happened, and that it's suspicious that there are no photos, since plenty of teens brought Kodak Instamatic cameras to shows in those days.

Toward the end of the film, Krulik even attends a Kennedy Center event red carpet and asks Jimmy Page whether Zeppelin might have played Wheaton. "I don't know, I can't remember," Page says amiably.

While there's plenty of fun moments, Led Zeppelin Played Here probably didn't need to be feature length. The interview soundbites rehash things that we already learned in the introduction, and at a point, the mystery loses its intrigue. Some of the Woodstock anecdotes from gray-haired hippies feel like extra padding. The end of the film picks up, though, when Krulik finds one final piece of evidence that lends some credence to the Wheaton legend. But it's still ultimately based on a person's hazy memory—so whether to believe it or not? That's up to the viewer.

Led Zeppelin Played Here screens at the Top Hat as part of the Big Sky Film Series Mon., Aug. 11, at 8 PM. Free.

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