Jimmy Sakurai, a Japanese guitarist and devoted fan of Jimmy Page of “Led Zeppelin,” has spent 35 years of his life emulating Jimmy Page as Mr. Jimmy. He might be called Jimmy Page’s Number One fan.
A close second (Number Two fan?) might be the Director of the 110 minute documentary “Mr. Jimmy,” Peter Michael Dowd. Director Dowd and I spoke on March 4th, nine days before SXSW in Austin, where the film will screen on opening night (March 8th).
For 35 years, Akio “Mr. Jimmy” Sakurai has dedicated his life to honoring the music of Jimmy Page. He honed his skills playing in Tokyo clubs for more than two decades, before moving to America and performing his faithful Led Zeppelin “revival” concerts across the United States.
Peter Michael Dowd became aware of Mr. Jimmy through YouTube videos and shared with me, “I am just a life-long Led Zeppelin fan, since the age of fifteen.” He shared memories of riding to school when “Whole Lotta’ Love” came on the radio (released Oct. 22, 1969). “I just really appreciated the wonder of Led Zeppelin. Then, I stumbled upon a video of Mr. Jimmy playing and he wore an obscure outfit that I remember from having seen Led Zeppelin at Network Festival on August 4, 1979. It was just the most banal look, but I recognized that it was exactly what Jimmy Page wore at that concert and that got me investigating.”
Dowd—whose mother Paula executive produced the documentary—made four trips to Japan to do the film. He had never been to Japan before stumbling upon Mr. Jimmy, via YouTube. “I found it so fascinating in Japan,” he said. “If you walk into a 7/11 in Tokyo, it’s run with military precision.” We agreed that the Japanese dedication to precision was a key factor in Mr. Jimmy’s fanatical obsession with Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin. As Dowd put it, “It’s a pure, beautiful expression of love.” He added, “In Japan it’s all about the details. That’s how the Japanese will beat the British and the United States.”
The climax of the documentary is when Mr. Jimmy is playing in Tokyo and the real Jimmy Page comes to his show, which Dowd captured on film. Mr. Jimmy (Sakurai) played for 2 hours that night and said, “The fact that he saw me play. I never thought that day would come. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow! That really happened. It moves me deeply inside.’”
Jimmy Page had heard that Jimmy Sakurai was going to be joining the tribute band “Led Zepagain” and more-or-less gave him a thumbs up that night. The Japanese version of the virtuoso guitarist also had the opportunity to ask the genuine article if it was “okay” to call himself Mr. Jimmy and play exactly like his idol. Dowd and I agreed that it was typical of the Japanese way of life and respect. As another of Jimmy’s friends says in the film, “We understand Jimmy’s obsession. It’s very Japanese. It’s a rebirth of the original. It’s his life’s work.”
After growing up in Tokamahi, Japan and moving to Tokyo, Jimmy Sakurai (Mr. Jimmy) watched his father draw intricate komono designs. In Tokyo, Mr. Jimmy had a day job selling kimonos, and, later, selling musical instruments. Mr. Jimmy’s obsession with “getting it right” is depicted in the documentary and may have led to his eventual break from “Led Zepagain” after 2 years and 250 shows together.
Today Jimmy Sakurai is the guitarist for “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening” but also maintains his own band “Mr. Jimmy,” which recreates specific concerts and eras of Led Zeppelin’s live history in every regard — costumes, lighting, live arrangements, and improvisation. Mr. Jimmy describes his excitement at being asked to join the band fronted by the son of Led Zeppelin original drummer John Bonham. Sakurai also maintains his own band from his Tokyo days.
The Mr. Jimmy band assembles the top Zeppelin tribute masters; the current line-up includes “Jimmy” Sakurai on lead guitar, August Young (of the Aviators) on vocals, Cody Tarbell (Slow Season) on drums, and “John Paul Joel” on bass & keys.
As one of the featured friends in the film says of Mr. Jimmy, “Jimmy Sakurai’s job is to make the audience think they’re watching Jimmy Page. Ultimately, he’s going for something that doesn’t have an answer, because the answer would be to become Jimmy Page himself.”
Documentary director and actor Peter Michael Dowd won the World Shorts competition in Little Rock for his documentary “The King of Size,” which also played at the New Orleans Film Festival. He has appeared as an actor in the film “The Beautiful Life,” 2012, and was previously the curator of film at the Museum of the Moving Image and Film Programmer at the George Eastman House.
“Mr. Jimmy” screens at SXSW on March 8th, 11th and 14th. Jimmy Sakurai will play at the Dirty Dog Bar on March 13th from midnight until ten minutes to 2 a.m.