The Unseen Artists of Joy

You waste enough time on the internet, and you find miracles.

First, spend eight minutes watching this. It’s a segment of the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors awards show, in which the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin are celebrated by a rendition of their most famous song, Stairway to Heaven. If you’re my age, the whole premise of this video is magical. The best band of the early 1970s having their most important song played to them by members of the best band of the late 1970s, Heart (whose members left Seattle for Vancouver during the Vietnam War), while Jason Bonham, the son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, plays drums in this orchestra, in celebration of a British band’s influence on American culture, in front of an audience featuring Michelle and Barack Obama… there’s already just a ton going on here.

Anyway, just watch. I’ll be here when you get back.

… … … …

I’ve seen this, like, ten times, and I get choked up a little every time. And I think the person most responsible for my experience will never be mentioned, certainly isn’t known to me. But the video editor has made us a miracle.

We get used to this and thus don’t notice it, but everything we see in a produced video is mediated by professional editing. (That’s why web-cam videos on YouTube look like crap; it’s a stationary camera and a straight-on face, completely primitive visual thinking in a much more sophisticated environment.) I was once writing about televised baseball, and counted sixty different camera shots in a four-minute half-inning. And each of those is doing something.

So let’s acknowledge the work of the editor here. First off, this eight-minute video contains 147 distinct shots, and the pace of those cuts mirrors both the rhythm and the urgency of the performance. Different shots are used when different players are featured, when measures change… but they come faster as the song becomes more tense in that shift from ballad to rock song.

The editing is doing at least three identifiable things. One is that it’s showing us who’s featured at any given moment—the singer Ann Wilson, guitarist Nancy Wilson, the drummer Jason Bonham, the chorus, the session musicians (including the anonymous guitar player who completely crushes Jimmy Page’s solo). So there’s the technical work of highlighting performers. But as I mentioned, it’s also doing emotional work, with the long calm passages mirrored by long calm shots (long being a relative term here, maybe six or seven seconds), the drive of rock ‘n’ roll mirrored by quick cuts.

But the third thing that the editing is doing is narrative. It’s showing us Barack and Michelle bobbing in their chairs, Michelle doing the rock-star face in full concentration at the two-minute mark. (And look at the mirroring between the pursed lips of Ann Wilson on stage leading into the pursed lips of Michelle in the box!) It’s showing us the appreciation of other musicians in the audience: Yo-Yo Ma with his eyes closed (two seconds, 5:15-5:17), Bonnie Raitt ecstatic with her hands over her head (for a second and a half at 6:10-6:11).

And it’s moving, over and over, between the members of Led Zeppelin in the honorees box and the performers on the stage. Robert Plant, the lead singer, red-eyed and teary the entire time… Jimmy Page watching the guitarist play that solo that he himself had played thousands of times, mouthing along with it at 5:04. You can practically hear him at 5:20: Yeah, THAT’s the way you fuckin’ play that! The whole band falling all over themselves when the scrim rises at 5:50 to reveal the entire 60-voice choir, their own epic song made even more epic, as though that were even possible. And the huge voice of Ann Wilson, confident and full and held steady, sliding at 6:35 into the image of a tearful Robert Plant, his own voice having launched hers. What must he be thinking right then? He looks like a proud father watching his rebellious, disreputable child finally walk across the stage at commencement.

And then Jason Bonham at 7:10—the song nearly over, coming to the recognition once again that this was his father’s work, his father’s band. And once the song IS over, at 7:34, saluting his father’s dear friends, his own bandmates that he’d toured with after his father died and Led Zeppelin carried on fitfully, with Jason filling John’s chair. The band’s long, famously acrimonious break-up now fully behind them.

So much art is brought to us by people we’ll never see, by enormous talents who work without recognition. We see the credits scroll by at waterfall speed at the movie’s end without acknowledging that that movie was made better—was made possible—by each of those names.

So to this unacknowledged video editor, probably working on contract for CBS to produce this show: thank you. I see you back there.