It started as a concert. It became a celebration.
“The Last Waltz was the biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to The Band.” That was how drummer and vocalist Levon Helm felt about Martin Scorsese’s famous concert movie back in 1993 when he wrote his memoirs. Apparently, he was jealous of Robbie Robertson’s elevated position in the film and pointed out that even though Robertson’s mike was turned off, the guitarist is still depicted as doing his full share of the vocals. Helm was also unhappy about not receiving anything from Warner regarding DVD and soundtrack sales, etc. He probably has a point. As a matter of fact, The Band’s farewell concert on that Thanksgiving night in 1976 was such a tremendous event that anyone involved with it might be forgiven for thinking that they should have gotten more money out of it.
I came to this movie more or less a novice. I didn’t know much about The Band and basically wanted them (and Scorsese) to show me why this film deserves the accolades it has gotten over the years. I was also aware of Roger Ebert’s review where he described the band members as looking tired and battle-worn throughout the concert. I can’t agree with him. Yes, there are moments toward the end where Robertson and his mates are starting to look exhausted, but the film opens with an energetic rendition of “Up on Cripple Creek” and the band keeps up the pace song after song, with admirable help from some of the greatest rock artists of this generation. One of the treats of this concert is watching The Band accompany them with ease and skill, which is an accomplishment considering their varied styles. After all, these guest stars include Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan and Ron Wood. Among others. The Band is forgiven for looking a little tired after a while.
A staff of brilliant cinematographers
As previously stated, this is an outstanding concert and the finale, where all the players gather on stage with The Band to perform “I Shall Be Released” seemed like such an emotional moment that I couldn’t help feel touched… and in complete awe of watching all these superstars contribute to it. The film perfectly captures this one-night-only atmosphere, a bittersweet moment forever caught on camera. But this is ultimately not a concert I’m reviewing, but a movie. The reason why so many admire Scorsese’s film probably has a lot to do with the concert itself, but the director did an excellent job staging it and helping put it into context. He had a staff of brilliant cinematographers by his side, including Michael Chapman, but also Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. The songs were carefully storyboarded and the film expertly varies them with conversations between Scorsese and band members who share memories from their 16-year long career as well as feelings regarding the future; Robertson memorably tells us that he couldn’t “live with 20 years on the road” and looks dead serious about it. We believe him. The film also offers views from San Francisco on the night of the concert and a few numbers with The Band that were shot subsequently on a soundstage (one involving Emmylou Harris).
In the end, The Last Waltz offers a background story, amusing anecdotes and an understanding of the price you have to pay if you want to spend a life on the road, along with a historic concert that puts us in the front seat. The film may not have the cultural significance of Woodstock (1970), but it’s hard to envision a better cinematic treatment of a concert.
The Last Waltz 1978-U.S. 117 min. Color. Produced by Robbie Robertson. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cinematography: Michael Chapman.
Trivia: A blob of cocaine hanging from Young’s nose was edited out in post-production.
Last word: “‘The Last Waltz’ was a kind of elegy, looking back. The Band are one of the most extraordinary groups ever to exist. There is no music like it. [Onstage] there’s Bob Dylan, there’s Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Neil Young. It was more to do with a kind of a … not resignation but an acceptance of time passing.” (Scorsese, The Guardian)