Filmmaker Jeff Krulik On Documenting D.C.’s Music Scene and DIY Ethos
It’s January 20, 1969 and Richard Nixon is inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States. On that very same day, an English quartet played one of their first American gigs at the Wheaton Community Youth Center in front of 50 teenagers. That band was the legendary Led Zeppelin.
The urban legend that one of rock and roll’s most prolific bands played a show for a small crowd in suburban Maryland has remained a mystery for nearly four decades. Now it’s the subject of filmmaker Jeff Krulik’s latest effort, Led Zeppelin Played Here, which is getting a special screening on Sunday, June 1 at the DC Record Fair.
“It’s an urban legend in this part of the local, cultural folklore for some time now,” Krulik says. Initially the story was first brought to the forefront by Capital Rock, a book which chronicled the concert scene of Washington, D.C. from the ’50s to the mid-’70s.
“In time though, [the concert] came into question. The Led Zeppelin community started to explore it,” says Krulik. “People started to strike back, websites primarily, and without any concrete proof like a concert stub, flyer or a poster, the concert started to come into question.”
But Krulik was interested in more than whether the band actually set foot in the gym, as he explains that the documentary focuses on D.C.’s emerging rock concert industry of that time period. “Led Zeppelin is a good name to put in the title,” Krulik laughs “but the film is more than that.”
Krulik’s past films celebrated people, ideas and subcultures that most may gloss over. From documenting fans camped-out at a Neil Diamond concert to riding across the Midwest on Ernest Borgnine’s bus, Krulik, who has been labeled the “Ken Burns of the Bizarre,” looks for subjects in the most unlikely places.
“I like really unusual subject matter,” Krulik says. “I guess I’m always drawn to unusual stories, characters, eccentricity; I have a lot of kinship with it.”
Krulik’s greatest kinship has been with his home state of Maryland and the D.C. area. Originally from Bowie, Krulik attended the University of Maryland, where he became involved in college radio, music and filmmaking. “I really wanted to work in the music industry, but I got more interested in visual medium and being behind a camera through public access and community TV,” he says.
After graduating in 1983, Krulik spent time selling cable television door-to-door before becoming the director of the MetroVision studio. “I still had this college-radio mentality,” Krulik says. “I was taking it to TV land.”
Through his work at the studio, Krulik and friend John Heyn filmed their first documentary in the parking lot of the former Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland right before a Judas Priest concert. A collage of colorful characters and artifacts of the mid ‘80s, screaming metal heads, burnouts, partiers and tailgaters are seen in Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which garnered a cult status since its 1986 release.“It didn’t really require a lot of effort, it was like ‘Hey, let’s do this,” Krulik recalls.
“[It was] not uncommon for us to try stuff with my cameras and see what we would get. We only had an hour of footage. We didn’t have any clear goal or agenda; we were just kind of letting it unfold and the rest is history,” he laughs.
Along with being an underground hit, the 17-minute video was also referenced in music videos from bands like American Hi-Fi to The Backstreet Boys, as well as being called “One of the greatest rock movies ever” by director Cameron Crowe. That’s a lot of eyes for a video Krulik and Heyn originally shared with just friends.
“I never showed it on my public access [channel]. We just had this video we would share. There were very little opportunities to screen it like there are today and this is light years before YouTube, so you had to see it by tape trading or a festival. By 1990, we had felt that it ran its course, but by 1994 we got word that it had traveled up to California; people were seeing it and even renting it in stores. Celebrities and musicians were also seeing it, and that was pretty cool.”
Finding a unique subject along with having an idiosyncratic DIY ethos has defined Krulik’s work and professional career since Heavy Metal Parking Lot. On the one hand, Krulik was able to transfer his know how into more professional deals and working with companies like Discovery Communications and TRIO, where he got the opportunity to expand his original Heavy Metal Parking Lot idea into an eight-part mini-series.
“I never thought of myself as a part of that DIY movement, but when Michael Azerrad (rock critic and author of Our Band Could Be Your Life) pointed it out to me, it really made sense,” he says. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to align myself with the DIY movement, but there’s always been a DIY movement in art, filmmaking, music and fashion and I certainly feel a kinship with it.”
Through his trials and rejection, Krulik would never stop his work or passion in collecting and documenting the different, unique and the always off-kilter. But after nearly three decades of producing and directing docs, Krulik is looking to take a short break.
“I don’t really have anything that I’m trying to get going on, but I’m confident I’ll be working on more projects eventually,” he says.
He still has multiple projects, footage and editing that he’s still working through and plans to complete some of his older projects. But for the time being, Led Zeppelin Played Here has been screened in San Francisco, Nashville and Chicago, along with recently getting into an Australian film festival.
“While the focus of it is in Maryland, I’m really happy that the film resonates beyond this area-it’s everything I could hope for.” Krulik says.
Watch the trailer for Led Zeppelin Played Here: