LOS ANGELES – For more than 30 years, Akio Sakurai has been obsessed with studying and recreating the minute details of every recorded performance of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Name the date and the place of the concert and Sakurai can play the song as Page did — the same timing, phrasing and tone, not to mention wearing the appropriate duds, including a perfect facsimile of the black dragon suit, right down to the colors of the stitching.
“Mr. Jimmy,” a new documentary film by American director Peter Michael Dowd, follows the 55-year-old Sakurai on his journey from playing basement clubs in Tokyo to joining one of the longest-running Led Zeppelin tribute bands in Los Angeles to playing with Jason Bonham, the son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
The film had its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, with three screenings on March, 8, 11 and 14.
Dowd discovered Sakurai on YouTube performing “The Rain Song” and was instantly awed at how accurately Sakurai copied Led Zeppelin’s August 4th, 1979, performance at the Knebworth Festival.
“I thought, ‘This is not a tribute guy. This is an artist and someone with a story. This is a movie,'” Dowd says.
From 1994, Sakurai played with his band Mr. Jimmy in small venues throughout Japan. Then, in 2012, the real Jimmy Page, in Japan to promote his film “Celebration Day,” dropped into the Gigabar club in Tokyo to catch Sakurai’s performance.
“I didn’t believe he would come,” Sakurai says. “I figured he must be tired because he just arrived from the U.K. But I got a call from his assistant. He said, ‘He still wants to go. Could you wait to start to play?’ And I said ‘Of course, I’ll wait.'”
Sakurai changed the setlist that night and chose to perform 1973-era Led Zeppelin. “I thought he would want to hear his best era. All the Zeppelin core fans know his playing style changed with each era and each year. Sometimes very good, sometimes magical, sometimes not as good, but still fans love to hear those differences.”
According to Sakurai, Page was impressed. “He said to me after the show, ‘You take me back to that time. You remind me what I did on the stage.'”
That was the moment Sakurai’s wife, Junko, told him he needed to go to the United States to pursue his dreams or he would be stuck playing weekend gigs in Japan for the rest of his life.
By the time Dowd began documenting Sakurai’s story, the guitarist had quit his stable wage-earning job at a kimono manufacturer and moved to the United States to join Los Angeles-based tribute band Led Zepagain.
“In Japan, I couldn’t find other musicians who had the same ideas and passion as I did. Many of my Japanese friends said, ‘You don’t need to take it that far. No one is listening that closely.’ But I knew I couldn’t achieve what I want to on my own, unless I found a drummer, bassist and singer who research and study Led Zeppelin as much I do.” Sakurai says. “My wife could feel my frustration.”
Junko stayed behind in Tokyo, but continues to support her husband from afar. She appears in the film, studying photographs and videos of Led Zeppelin and tailoring her husband’s costumes according to his fastidious demands.
While Sakurai’s precise attention to detail and skillful mimicry is admirable, is he really offering fans what they want? That becomes a point of contention among his Led Zepagain bandmates and is a key focus of Dowd’s film.
Led Zepagain is a tribute band, but Sakurai has a vision for it becoming a ‘revival’ band, one that allows for Page-like extended jams rather than four-minute covers.
“Everyone is telling him, ‘Jimmy, do a jukebox show. Do simpler versions of the hits’,” Dowd says.
For the film’s director, who was born in 1976 and never got a chance to see Led Zeppelin live, it’s magical. “When (Sakurai) puts together a show, if it’s a 1970 show, if it’s live on Blueberry Hill, and he puts on that Hiwatt amplifier with the fingering and phrasing, and the costumes and movement and energy, I sometimes feel like I’m there seeing the best band that ever was at their absolute peak. That’s something very special.”
Sakurai equates what he does to being an actor. He knows he is inhabiting a role and creating a representation for the audience to temporarily suspend their disbelief by taking them into a fictional world.
“I consider what I do to be a ‘revival’ band,” Sakurai says. “It’s like Spielberg did with dinosaurs in ‘Jurassic Park.'”