SXSW Review: Mr. Jimmy


At some point in our lives, we’ve aspired to be our heroes. I can’t tell you how many times while playing backyard baseball I’d turn my hat backward and take a long, swooping swing a la Ken Griffey Jr. But no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t hit like The Kid. Those curveballs were my worst enemy.

In Mr. Jimmy, a young man’s dream to mimic his hero fares better than most, and his story of determination — perhaps more obsession — is told in this nearly two-hour long documentary that premiered at SXSW.

Mr. Jimmy
Director: Peter Michael Dowd

Release date: TBD
Rating: NR

Akio Sakurai first heard Led Zeppelin as a teenager. Immediately struck by Jimmy Page’s enigmatic ability to transform six strings (or sometimes twelve) into a frenetic symphony of rock and roll, the music set Sakurai on a new path. Since then, some thirty years later, he has become the be-all-end-all of Page impersonators.

Sakurai dove right into his dream. He not only learned the songs, he learned the different variations of the songs. From studio releases to live arrangements, Sakurai obsessed over each one. He meticulously works his guitars and amps to provide the EXACT sound, which again, can vary between studio recordings and live renditions. If Zeppelin sounded one way at a specific concert in 1973, Sakurai could recreate it. That same song could have a different tone in 1974, and he would practice until he got it right, even if the average person wouldn’t know the difference.

He spent hours pouring over Page’s wardrobe, recreating shirts, pants, and accessories. If a shirt had a tear on the sleeve at a certain spot or the shoulder of a jacket rose a certain way, Sakurai would have his designer match it perfectly. They had pictures printed out, zoomed in to try and get every last detail. Sakurai even recreated Page’s Black Dragon pants and jacket, which were embroidered all over and could not have been cheap to make. The one thing the film avoids discussing is just how much money Sakurai spent on equipment and wardrobe.

After playing small clubs in Japan and in front of Page himself, Sakurai bet on himself and moved to Los Angeles. There, he joined tribute band Led Zepagain, and immediately made an impact. He pushed the band to be bigger, to exemplify Zeppelin’s image not just in song but in stage presence. He wrote notes and memos for each band member on mistakes they made and how to improve. It was clear early on that Sakurai’s obsession was leaps and bounds above the other members. Sakurai wanted the band to cut down on playing the hits and provide a more rounded experience. The band pushed back because they were concerned that people would stop showing up.

Within two years, Sakurai set out to form his own group. It’s easy to see in this film that Sakurai’s expectations for himself and others were incredibly high. Because of his passion for wanting to be great, he became difficult to work with. Where others saw the band for what it is — a cover band, tribute band, take your pick — Sakurai saw a legitimized revival of Zeppelin itself. Between poor management and the realization that fans want the hits, Sakurai once again found himself without a band.

Sakurai’s incessant need for detail is explored in the film to a frustrating degree. So much time is spent on his nitpicking that it takes away from the fact that he’s an amazing talent. There’s plenty of shots of Sakurai shredding, to be sure, but it’s hard to root for him when he pushes others to take something they have fun doing to a point where they no longer enjoy it. This isn’t exactly uncommon in the music industry, and bands break up all the time because of “creative differences,” but it’s sad to see nonetheless.

Because Sakurai is from Japan, the majority of the film understandably uses subtitles. This isn’t an issue generally, but there are times where the white subtitles are on-screen with a lighter background that makes it more difficult to read. On more than one occasion, Sakurai’s former manager is speaking. He’s in an environment with white sand behind him, while wearing a white shirt. Trying to keep up with white subtitles during this and a handful of other instances turns the focus from conversational comprehension to simply trying to pick words out before they disappear from the screen, breaking natural rhythm. 

Mr. Jimmy can be fun at times, particularly when Sakurai is onstage letting the music take over. There’s no denying his talent, and one wonders what life for him would have been like had he chose to create his own music instead of impersonating someone else’s. It shows the true obsession one man has with another man’s craft, and the minutiae involved with being as accurate as possible.  

Nick Hershey