The filmmakers behind “Becoming Led Zeppelin”, the upcoming feature-length documentary about the origins of Led Zeppelin, spent years researching a rare 1972 radio interview with John Bonham – although their deal to include the audio in the film was temporarily cancelled last year because they failed to pay the full licence fee, LedZepNews can reveal.
First announced in 2019, “Becoming Led Zeppelin” remains unreleased with no screenings announced beyond a handful of film festival screenings that took place in September 2021 and a private screening in the US last month.
Now, a cache of emails and documents provided to LedZepNews sheds light on the secretive filmmaking process and reveals how the Covid pandemic slowed down the film’s production.
One of the film’s producers has now confirmed to LedZepNews that the 1972 radio interview remains in the film, despite the collapse of the licensing deal last year.
Discovering a rare Australian radio interview
LedZepNews filed a Freedom of Information request with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia requesting correspondence with the filmmakers of “Becoming Led Zeppelin”. The 69 pages of emails and documents we received allow us to take readers inside the making of the film.
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones gave new interviews to the makers of “Becoming Led Zeppelin” to discuss their lives and the formation of the band. John Bonham died in 1980, however, so the filmmakers are using a rare, hour-long interview conducted by Graeme Berry with Bonham and Plant recorded for Sydney radio station 2SM in 1972 to include his voice in the film.
“New film research – your detective skills requested,” the film’s director Bernard MacMahon wrote in an email subject line to the archives on February 15, 2019. “We are researching a new film on the late 1960s music scene and would like your help in locating any audio interviews featuring John Bonham the drummer from Led Zeppelin. The date range would be 1969-1980,” he wrote.
“One interview we are particularly hoping to find is an interview of John Bonham and Robert Plant conducted in late 1971 or early 1972 by an Australian radio journalist. The bootleg does not have the interviewers name, nor what station it was for, although we suspect it might be for Radio 2SM. That said, any audio with Bonham talking would be wonderful. Not to mention film footage of course,” he continued.
Weeks passed and the archives struggled to find the Bonham interview. But on April 7, 2019, they emailed MacMahon with some promising news:
“Hi Bernard, I’m sorry for the long delay in getting back to you. One of my curatorial colleagues has just uncovered the following (promising) item – also from 2SM. This is part of an acquisition that has yet to be catalogued. He will listen to this tomorrow to provide details of the recording.”
MacMahon responded the next day with an email written on his phone: “The 2SM select item – Robert Plant and John Bonham looks very promising. Is this a 1/ 4″ tape? Look forward to hearing the news. Thank you for your great work.”
The tape allowed John Bonham’s voice to be included in ‘Becoming Led Zeppelin’
MacMahon discussed the interview tape’s discovery during the press conference for the film on September 4, 2021 in Venice. “I came across this bootleg and it was a short interview with John talking. It was on an old vinyl record but I could hear this had been made to a quarter inch tape and the journalist was Australian and I went to every Australian journalist that we knew from that era saying ‘do you recognise this voice?’ Because the journalist didn’t identify himself. And eventually I tracked down someone that said ‘we know who he was’ but he died,” MacMahon said.
“And fortunately, the Sound Archive in Canberra in Australia had put on an ‘American Epic’ festival, our previous film. So I called the head of it and I said ‘do you have an archive of old radio tapes?’ And he went ‘yeah.’ He looked through, didn’t have it. But they had 30,000 unmarked reels and he went through all of them and he eventually found one with ‘Slade’ written on the box, the group, opened it up, put it on and it was John and that’s the interview you hear.”
Jason Bonham, John Bonham’s son, discussed in a podcast interview released on June 7, 2022 hearing the tape of his father in a cut of the film that he saw along with his wife. “All I could think was I don’t remember him sounding like that. And that was really weird,” he said. “I was convinced that maybe the tape they were using was slightly too fast, as if they … through transition, through the years it had worn. Because it was late just the tiniest, tiniest bit.”
“There was a couple of parts where I was like I think just through the years the tape had worn and it needed to be adjusted slightly slower for his timbre and his voice,” he added.
Striking a deal to use the audio
Once the original reels for the radio interview were found, the filmmakers agreed a deal with the archives to use some of the audio in “Becoming Led Zeppelin”. MacMahon, the film’s director, was keen to keep the audio out of the archives’ public catalogue until the film’s release.
“Thank you for being so professional and helpful,” MacMahon emailed the archives on May 1, 2019 after listening to a sample of the tape. “The dialogue matches the bootleg and is the interview I have been looking for. What is the tape format? Is mono or stereo?”
“Please send the 24bit 96k transfer of the entire interview so we can begin cutting and [redacted] can check the transfer. I estimate we will be using over 360 seconds in perpetuity but with the whole thing it may be more so it’ll be well worth it,” he continued. “As it’s been unavailable for 47 years could you kindly keep the tape out of the public catalogue for a few months till the film comes out so it has a great surprise and we can do some promo on you finding it. We’ll also be able to use more of it if its unheard.”
In the following months, the filmmakers agreed to take delivery of the reels to digitise them for inclusion in the film. They asked for permission to keep a copy of the audio until the film’s anticipated date of completion: December 31, 2019.
“I want to thank you again for allowing the tape to be sent. It was definitely worthwhile and allowed a significant sound quality improvement,” one of the filmmakers emailed the archives on August 23, 2019.
The Covid pandemic then slowed down the film’s production, meaning the film wasn’t completed in 2019 as planned.
“When we last emailed back in March we were on the verge of finishing the Led Zeppelin project…and then COVID hit,” one of the filmmakers sent the archives in an email on November 3, 2020. “It really took its toll on the production but we are finally nearing completion.”
In that email, the filmmakers mention that “Becoming Led Zeppelin” had the working title “Apollo”, confirming a LedZepNews story published on April 4, 2020.
The filmmakers struck a deal to use 396 seconds (6 minutes and 36 seconds) of the audio in “Becoming Led Zeppelin” for a total cost of $18,832 Australian dollars. The agreement included the right to use the audio in the film’s trailers and in promotional clips.
The agreement was terminated due to non-payment (but it’s now back on)
Emails released to LedZepNews show the archives eventually chasing payment of the remaining licensing fee balance.
“The NFSA hasn’t received payment of $14,782.00 for invoice INV57502 (PO #19-715). The invoice is now over 30 days,” the archives wrote to the film’s producers in an email sent on February 5, 2021. “Could you let me know if this invoice will be paid soon?”
In September 2021, the archives announced the discovery of the tapes around the time that the film premiered in Venice.
On July 6, 2022, the archives sent the film’s producer Allison McGourty and director an email with the subject line “Notice to terminate agreement between NFSA and Paradise Entertainment”.
Dear Allison, this is notification that the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) will terminate the usage agreement with Paradise Entertainment if payment of $12,804.00 (AUD) is not received within 7 days (13 July 2022).
As you know, the agreement between NFSA and Paradise Entertainment permits the use of NFSA collection material (title no. 1576974) in the film, Becoming Led Zeppelin, pending payment of the usage fee. If the agreement is cancelled you will not be permitted to include the NFSA collection material in any screenings of the film. Nor will you be permitted to reproduce, communicate or otherwise make available to the public (whether commercially or not) the NFSA collection material.
Once the agreement is cancelled, Paradise Entertainment will need to pay the outstanding licence fee, and sign a new agreement, before you can again include the NFSA collection material in Becoming Led Zeppelin.
The archives then emailed the film’s producers and director on July 15, 2022 informing them that their licence to use the Bonham radio interview in their film had been terminated because they failed to pay the full licence fee:
Dear Allison, this email confirms that your agreement with NFSA has now been terminated. Therefore, you may not include the NFSA collection material (title no. 1576964) in the film, Becoming Led Zeppelin, for any purpose whether commercial or non-commercial.
Please contact Sean Bridgeman (copied here) to negotiate a replacement agreement and pay the outstanding licence fee when you are in a position to do so.
The emails released to LedZepNews end in July 2022, so we contacted McGourty the producer via email to ask whether the termination of the licensing deal last year affects the film and whether the Bonham interview is included in the current cut.
“There is an agreement in place with the NFSA and the audio interview will be heard in the film,” McGourty said in an email to LedZepNews on May 12. Clearly, the deal is back on despite its termination in 2022.