Ever since the 1970s, multiple generations of young people learning how to play guitar have discovered Led Zeppelin and tried to learn how to play the songs themselves. For teenage guitarists to start picking at "Stairway to Heaven" was such a cliche that the first Wayne's World movie made fun of it in 1992.
A Japanese man named Akio Sakurai also got very into the band as a teenager, but he took it further than most. With enough practice a typical teen guitarist can learn the chords of most Zeppelin songs and maybe even play the "Stairway" or "Rain Song" intro. Those long Jimmy Page solos, though, are more complicated.
A Zeppelin obsessive, Akio worked a normal job as a "salary man" by day while moonlighting as a musician. He started performing in Tokyo nightclubs not only playing the band's songs, but re-creating Jimmy Page's guitar parts from specific concerts note-for-note, elaborate costumes included. This earned him a respectable following on YouTube, and he once met Page when he came to a show.
The new documentary Mr. Jimmy, directed by Peter Michael Dowd, takes that as the jumping-off point. The rest of the film has Akio, at around age 50, moving to the United States to pursue his Zeppelin obsession, and running roughshod through multiple Led Zeppelin tribute bands in the Los Angeles area.
It's a fascinating film, with the exploration of an oddball subculture and the people who propel it with their obsessions. It helps that Led Zeppelin allowed the use of their music for the film. Because if they hadn't, this two-hour movie probably would’ve been about 25 minutes.
Is this man a genius, or insane? The film hints at both but provides no easy conclusions.
Yukio spends the bulk of the film playing in a Zeppelin tribute band called Led Zepagain. They're in the tradition of Dread Zeppelin (who played reggae versions of Zeppelin songs, with an Elvis impersonator at the helm) and all-female Lez Zeppelin.
The Zepagain members are talented musicians—and the frontman has faithfully re-created Robert Plant's latter-period curly hair—but it's clear that Yukio approaches the faithful re-creation of Zeppelin tunes and performances more seriously than the other guys. Most people going to see a Zeppelin tribute act probably just like hearing the songs on the radio and would love to hear them again from a few guys who sort of look like the real musicians.
Mr. Jimmy essentially becomes a tribute band version of The Beatles: Get Back—there's tension in the band, due in part to one of the members being a control freak and clashing with the others. One thing is made clear: there's not a lot of money in the tribute band scene. It's like being in a regular band, and today it's exceedingly difficult to ever make any money. If you're spending lots of money on vintage guitars and elaborate costumes, the chance of profitability gets even more distant. Most of the performance scenes obscure just how many (or how few) people are in the crowd.
Mr. Jimmy debuted at the South by Southwest film festival in 2019 and is finally seeing a theatrical release more than four years later; I have a hunch the negotiation to get the rights to those Page-Plant songs was the reason it took so long. But as an exploration of a man and his obsession, it was worth the wait.