A Japanese salesman becomes obsessed with memorizing and recreating every flared trouser and fast-fingered movement of virtuoso Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. Eventually he reaches his fifties and leaves behind his job, country, and family in order to pursue his passion in Los Angeles, where his beloved icon played a few unforgettable nights in the late 60s.
One could be forgiven for assuming that a documentary about Akio Sakurai would be a portrait of rock and roll cosplay at its most campy and madcap. Instead, Peter Michael Dowd’s film is a moving tribute to the purity and meticulousness of its subject’s quixotic quest.
Mr. Jimmy, which premiered on the festival circuit in 2019 and is now playing in select theaters, has a 100% fresh “Tomatometer” rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. The movie took four years to see its way to theatrical release because of the difficulty of securing musical rights. “It just took a while with 30 Led Zeppelin songs, and then there’s songs by John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley,” said Dowd, whose previous two documentaries also happen to be portraits of complex, misunderstood men. He finally got the all clear to release his latest movie in theaters after years of negotiations. “There’s probably a reason why most commercial documentaries don’t have anything like this kind of a soundtrack. But I thought it was worth the wait.”
Dowd, who lives in Los Angeles, learned about Sakurai on YouTube, where videos of the Japanese megafan’s reenactments of Jimmy Page concerts proliferated. “I saw this clip and it just said: Rain Song, 1979 version. I clicked on it, and I said, wait a minute, there’s a Japanese guy who looks exactly like Jimmy Page, but more importantly, he’s wearing the blue button down shirt, the white linen pants, the black loafers of Jimmy Page’s exact outfit from August 4, 1979,” Dowd said. “And I realized, by listening to him play, this guy’s a virtuoso himself. He’s like a method actor.”
Sakurai fell for Page as a teenager, and spent countless hours holed up in his bedroom listening to Zeppelin recordings and recreating the melodies on his guitar. His decades-long and ever intensifying project has been an exercise in self-erasure and spirituality, focused not on experiencing what it is like to be a rock legend but bringing exact moments back to life, even if the appetite for such verisimilitude is thin. The film reveals the conflict between a world that wants fun, nostalgic entertainment and a man who would rather get every detail perfect.
It also shows its subject working with a costume designers to nail the exact crease in a jacket that Page wore onstage, or conspiring with vintage equipment specialists to capture the exact reverb of a particular recording. “I can only use guitars he played,” Sakurai says in the film. “If it was a different guitar, I wouldn’t understand the song.” His mastery of the Led Zeppelin catalogue is no less painstaking. He speaks of details in bootleg recordings with a wine-enthusiast approach, able to identify minute differences between versions of the same song played less than one year apart.
Sakurai was relatively content performing in small Tokyo clubs for decades. In 2012, Page himself showed up for a performance, an event that inspired his acolyte to go for broke and seek out fellow Zeppelin obsessives in California. He hooked up with the tribute group Led Zepagain, though differences in approach pointed up a chasm that proved impossible to bridge. The members of the group took a slightly less meditative approach, and they didn’t share their Japanese bandmate’s apprehensions about mounting jukebox-style shows of the greatest hits. For Sakurai, though, performing was the highest expression of being. “Every time he played it was like he was discovering the record for the first time,” said Dowd. “Sometimes he reaches peak Jimmy Page, and he completely disappears. And that is transcendent — it’s beyond rock and roll. It’s so visceral and physical.”
Sakurai’s mastery of 20-minute guitar solos goes beyond mechanical skills. When he is channeling Jimmy Page he appears to transform into his own deity. “What turns me on artistically is this mixture of craft and rawness you see when plays,” said Dowd. Sakurai comes to his study with a reverence for tradition and detail.“Some day I’m hoping to meet an artist whose mindset is the exact same as mine,” he tells the camera in one of the film’s more revealing moments. “I don’t know if that will ever happen.”
Dowd’s film is far more than a quirky character study. It is a tribute to finding and committing to the one thing you actually care about, no matter how misunderstood you’re bound to be. “I’ve had the shittiest jobs,” said Dowd. “I’ve done telemarketing. I’ve done Uber driving. I sold my car at one point to get to Japan so I could film another round of scenes for my movie. I recognized and identified with putting yourself out there and then getting shot down.”
Mr Jimmy is out in US cinemas now with a UK date to be announced