'Mr. Jimmy': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW
The song (almost) remains the same.

Peter Michael Dowd's beguiling documentary chronicles the good times and bad times of Japanese Jimmy Page impersonator Akio Sakurai.

It's not quite right to call Akio Sakurai an impersonator. "Inhabiter" is more apt. And as shown in Peter Michael Dowd's documentary Mr. Jimmy, which takes its title from Sakurai's onstage moniker, he's certainly worked hard to get to that point. Since the age of 19, Sakurai has been obsessed with Led Zeppelin, particularly the rock group's virtuoso guitarist, Jimmy Page. His passion is all-consuming, to a point that would shame, and perhaps alarm, even the most self-styled fanboy.

Think there's only one way to play "Stairway to Heaven"? Think again. Sakurai can perform distinct note-for-note "live" versions from any era of Zeppelin you'd care to name. But it's not just the music: Sakurai is also a student of Page's very essence — how he dressed, how he moved, the instruments (down to their discrete mechanical components) that he used to conjure his particular magic. For 30 years, Sakurai, the son of a kimono maker, performed in Tokyo clubs to small, appreciative audiences. Then in 2012, Page himself came to a Mr. Jimmy show and the confluence of icon and emulator (archive footage included in the doc reveals that Page was visibly ecstatic at this tribute) reoriented Sakurai's career path.

Dowd just happened to discover Sakurai in the early days of his move from Japan to Los Angeles, where he aims to perform the Zeppelin catalog full-time. A good chunk of the film follows Sakurai's work with the tribute band Led Zepagain, the members of which often appear bemused by their bandmate's dedication. There's a fair share of tension underlying their bafflement, much of it cultural. Several times Sakurai talks about the Japanese resolve to do one thing extremely well — a steadfast combination of competitiveness and devotion that's alien to many American sensibilities. Whenever he gently but firmly schools Swan Montgomery, Zepagain's Robert Plant avatar, in the minutiae of lyric pronunciation, you can sense awe and irritation battling for emotional primacy.

Montgomery ultimately lands on the side of perceived audience expectation. Led Zeppelin was Led Zeppelin and thus could indulge performative flights of fancy like 20-minute-plus Page guitar solos (which you better believe Sakurai can mirror near-perfectly). Should a tribute band, even a great one, have a similar privilege? Since at best Led Zepagain is still a carbon copy of the original, isn't it better, and more lucrative, to do covers of the hits in digestible chunks?

It isn't fair to say that Sakurai's goal is indulgence. So what is it, exactly? Certainly his work goes well beyond imitation, staking claim in the uncanniest of valleys. In one sequence, Dowd dissolves between both Sakurai and a younger Page thrashing onstage, and they blend so seamlessly that you often forget you're not always watching the real thing. When you can see the seams, Sakurai's exertions come off as nostalgic kitsch. But when he fully "gets" Page, it's something else — a channeling, of sorts, of an intoxicating moment that's been lost to time.

Sakurai's aim, then, is to shake off the self and transform, even if only for a sublime split second, into someone else from somewhere else — dolator mutated gloriously into bygone idol. There's certainly pleasure in that, though the degree to which this is a truly worthwhile pursuit will vary between viewer. Even Dowd seems torn, at times, as to whether he's celebrating his subject's rigor or exposing it as a fannish fraud. (The film's intentionally truncated last scene, especially, suggests several overall readings, some pro, some con.) It's nonetheless the very slipperiness of Sakurai's passion — to humbly become the god he worships — that continually compels.

Cast: Akio Sakurai, Rie Nakahara, Kiyomi Osawa, Junko Sakurai, Shinji Kishimoto, Atsushi Iwasaki, Naoki Washida, Makoto Fukano, Kiyo Yokoseki, Hiroshi Kokai
Director-producer-editor: Peter Michael Dowd
Executive producer: Paula Dowd
Cinematographers: Matthew Blute, Ivan Kovac
Sound designer: Jeffrey Jousan
Additional sound recording: Elizabeth Aubert, Gabe Stewart
Aerial cinematography: Jesse Brunt
Assistant editors: Yukari Kamiya, Ami Shimada
Additional cinematography: Spencer Byam-Taylor, Michael Parry, Patrick Stringer
Colorist: Harris Charalambous
Music supervisor: Brooke Wentz
Publicity contact: David Magdael
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)

110 minutes