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Stairway to Legend 

Jeff Krulik discusses his documentary that seeks to prove the lowest paying gig for Led Zeppelin happened at a youth center in Wheaton, Maryland.

click to enlarge art30_film_zeppelin.jpg

Rob Koplowitz

Give me a filmmaker with real passion about a subject and chances are much better that an interesting movie will be playing on the wall — or in your hand, or the back of the car headrest, or wherever the hell they're played nowadays.

Filmmaker Jeff Krulik has always been passionate about the rock concert industry as well as the personalities and machinery behind its emergence in the 1960s. Having grown up in Maryland during the age of '70s arena rock, Krulik loves to explore the Washington area's place in musical history and lore, including the lives of music obsessives, collectors and nostalgia hounds. They're his people. He's one of them.

If you're familiar with his name, it's likely because you've seen his cult classic short made with John Heyn, "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," an endlessly watchable, hilariously spot-on expose of the parking lot scene at a 1986 Judas Priest and Dokken concert held at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland. Once called the "'Citizen Kane' of wasted teenage metalness," this time capsule became an underground sensation, played on countless tour buses by bands like Nirvana, and screened at events such as our own James River Film Festival, where one of the film's real-life characters, Graham "Of Dope" Owens, showed up to hawk his own book published 30 years later.

Fewer are aware of Krulik's other efforts to chronicle the cultural landscape of his home region, including a trilogy to commemorate the Ambassador Theater Psychedelic Dance Hall, the Alexandria Roller Rink in Northern Virginia, and his full-length 2013 documentary, "Led Zeppelin Played Here," which will finally be screened in Richmond at the Visual Arts Center on Friday, July 26.

Described as a "Rock-and-roll Roshomon" by the Washington Post, the film is a fascinating and frequently funny attempt by Krulik to prove that Led Zeppelin's first Washington-area concert was held at a youth center in Wheaton, Maryland, before 50 kids on the snowy night of Jan. 20, 1969 — the same night as Richard Nixon's first inauguration.

Style Weekly spoke with Krulik by phone, after somewhat of a Larry David moment that found him yelling hilariously about a scooter that was blocking traffic. [Editor's note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity]

Style Weekly: So this started out as a documentary about the Laurel Pop Music Fest, how did it switch to focusing on this Led Zeppelin urban legend?

Jeff Krulik: Yeah, so I originally wanted to profile this kind of forgotten pop festival. A lot of my projects are motivated by my own curiosity. You're going to be living with this material, you really need to be interested in it. So I was always fascinated by the idea that this big two-day rock festival with iconic names [Led Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, the Mothers of Invention] took place right here a month before Woodstock. I wanted to know more about it. I was going to call it "Maryland's Woodstock." But then I found myself tracing Led Zeppelin's rise, because prior to Laurel Pop they were at Merriweather Post Pavilion opening for The Who, and that was well documented and remembered. And they had played in Baltimore with Vanilla Fudge.

Then I went into the Wheaton Youth Center, on a whim, and I was astonished because it was so frozen in time. It looked like it did the day the building opened in 1963. I couldn't believe it. And I knew a lot of these bands had played this building because the DJs were de facto promoters and would shoehorn them in. Bands like the Stooges played there, all sorts of national acts. Immediately I was like, 'This building could be a character in my film.' I'm a fan of historic architecture and I thought the building could help tell this story, so that's where it really changed for me. As I say in the movie, the film started off as a nostalgia trip but became this mystery: Did they play there or not?

And you're not even really a huge Zeppelin fan are you?

Yeah, I don't dislike them. I had one record, the fourth album, growing up. Now I have all their music, all the CDs, and like them quite a bit. But they became the hook to tell a story which is really, I feel, about the emergence of the rock concert industry as well as a meditation on memory and other academic interpretations, I guess.

I'm just thrilled people like it. I've screened it all around the country, and you don't have to be from this part of the country to enjoy it. There's something archetypal in this that resonates, which I'm very happy about. … In a lot of ways, this is a love letter to where I'm from. [Places like] Joe's Record Paradise. I wound up including a lot of people I knew. I like to play around with the medium, put myself in there.

You have a background at the Discovery Channel right?

Yeah, I spent about five years working there from '90 to '95. I wasn't a producer though, I was reviewing programs for acquisition. But it was still a network. And prior to that, I was in public access television for five years, which is really like an extension of college radio [laughs]. So that's where I got behind the camera, cut my teeth.

I've been a freelance producer and independent filmmaker since '95. I do a lot of archival footage research still and other producing gigs. I just worked on "Chasing the Moon" by Robert Stone on PBS' American Experience.

Did the eyewitness accounts from people who say they were at the Wheaton show corroborate each other?

I think they do to some extent. But what's interesting is [local DJ and alleged promoter for this gig] Barry Richards always changes his story, he's not stopping to connect the dots. That's just his patter as a former DJ. … I like oddball stories and eccentric characters. I'm one of them. I wish I had a collection like some of these people do. I was more of a hoarder. I still have all my records but don't have a record player.

People like [Atlantic Records' promoter] Mario Medius, he's the star. I love him. I have almost three and a half hours [extras] of him talking about stories. He ended up with Emerson Lake and Palmer as the president of their label. He's just got an incredible saga. I do enjoy getting to know the people and gaining their trust. … Making a documentary is like a puzzle for me. I work, in a lot of ways, by the seat of my pants.

What are some of the interesting reactions at screenings?

Well, it still astonishes me. I wanted to make this film to present convincing evidence, but there still is no hard proof this concert happened to this day. [At screenings] I always take a survey of who believes it happened. It tends now to be more people believe it, but there's always people who don't. I was at a screening at the University of Maryland, my alma mater, with academics. And academics were like, "We want proof!" A lot of them refused to believe it happened.

I don't want to give too much away, but there's a great moment where you come face to face with Jimmy Page on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center in 2012. And Dave Grohl as well, who says he will talk to them backstage and get back to you.

That was a total fluke opportunity that just presented itself, that Zeppelin was being honored. I was on the clock [for "Extra"] and I went rogue. I was working for them, which I did do. But they just wanted sound bites and Led Zeppelin was not their demo. … And no, Dave Grohl never did get back to me.

In fact, I don't think I've done anything for "Extra" since then [laughs].

Presented by the James River Film Society, "Led Zeppelin Played Here" with guest director Jeff Krulik, will be screened at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond on Friday, July 26, at 8 p.m. $7 admission.

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