#594) The Last Waltz (1978)

#594) The Last Waltz (1978)

OR “Band’s End”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Class of 2019

The Plot: Influential Canadian-American rock group The Band (Rick Danko – bass guitar, Levon Helm – drums, Garth Hudson – organ, Richard Manuel -piano, Robbie Robertson – guitar) gather together for one final concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Rather than treating the concert as a farewell performance, the Band opts for a celebration of their 16 years on the road, inviting an all-star lineup of artists to join them. In addition to the ’70s folk rock of The Band, “The Last Waltz” features performances by Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ron Wood and Ringo Starr! And in the midst of all of this, Martin Scorsese and a murderers’ row of cinematographers capture the event and turn it into a cinematic experience.

Why It Matters: Oddly enough for a recent NFR entry, the official listing for “The Last Waltz” is brief and lacking in superlatives. The NFR write-up is mostly a description of the concert and its impressive roster of talent.

But Does It Really?: I dunno, I guess you had to be there? With all due respect to Martin Scorsese and The Band, I couldn’t get into “The Last Waltz”. I enjoyed the music, but this film didn’t carry its intended weight for me. “The Last Waltz” lacks the zeitgeist and iconic moments of “Woodstock” or “Monterey Pop“, and I don’t have the nostalgic lens as a viewer to understand the importance of The Band and this concert. I enjoyed “The Last Waltz” as a fun bit of ’70s rock, but I risk pissing off a lot of Boomers by questioning this film’s NFR standing.

Everybody Gets One: The Band began life in 1958 as The Hawks, backing up country singer Ronnie Hawkins. After backing up Bob Dylan on his mid-60s electric tour, The Hawks became The Band (stories differ on how exactly the name came to be) and recorded their first album “Music from Big Pink“. The album was a success, and The Band inspired generations of musicians with their melding of rock, folk, country, and R&B.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “The Last Waltz”. For the record, 1978’s Best Documentary winner was Arnold Shapiro’s “Scared Straight”, about the prison reform program that studies have shown isn’t very effective. 

Other notes

  • After 16 years of touring, Robbie Robertson was tired of being on the road. A recent boating accident involving Richard Manuel prompted the end of The Band’s live performances (although Levon Helm felt that Robertson forced the band’s early retirement). Invitations for both Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan to perform at their final concert (already named “The Last Waltz”) snowballed into an overbooked concert that ran anywhere from five to seven hours (sources vary). Robertson had the idea to film the concert, and approached Martin Scorsese based on his rock soundtrack of “Mean Streets” and his work co-editing “Woodstock”. Scorsese accepted immediately and crafted a 300 page shooting script based around camera angles and lyrics in less than six weeks.
  • The opening text of the movie states “This Film Should Be Played Loud!” That’s all well and good, but I got neighbors all around me and walls like a ryokan. Not happening.
  • The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” was actually their final encore of the evening, but was moved to the beginning of the film, structuring the whole thing like a flashback. Sure, why not.
  • I’m gonna go ahead and declare the ’70s to be our hairiest decade in history.
  • Ronnie Hawkins makes a welcome appearance reuniting with his former backup, and does a mean cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?”.
  • I’ve always enjoyed the soulful, gravelly sounds of Dr. John, and I’m digging his sparkly jacket! Fun Fact: He was the inspiration for Dr. Teeth on “The Muppet Show”.
  • Neil Young does a lovely rendition of “Heartless” (with recent Kennedy Center honoree Joni Mitchell on backup vocals). It seems, however, that Young did not get the message that a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.
  • Weirdly, I don’t have much to say about The Band or their performance here. There’s a bit of disconnect not only between me and this movie, but also between the performers. The guest artists clearly have a lot of affection for The Band, but the actual Band members don’t seem to be having any fun in this. Maybe I’m sensing the growing discord between Robertson and his band mates? Or maybe they’re all on drugs.
  • I spent most of the film wondering “Did The Band have any songs I’ve actually heard of?” Turns out it’s “The Weight”, aka that “Take a load off” song. “The Weight” is one of a few songs filmed in-studio for this movie after the concert, giving The Band a chance to perform with gospel group The Staple Sisters, one of their many musical influences.
  • My Neil Diamond note simply reads “Neil Diamond?” Turns out Diamond and Robbie Robertson co-wrote “Dry Your Eyes”, which Diamond performs here, as well as on his then-recent album “Beautiful Noise”.
  • Shoutout to the film’s camera operators who helped bring Scorsese’s detailed vision to life – in one night! Michael Chapman (later of “Raging Bull“) was the head cinematographer, and the camera team on the ground included Vilmos Szigmond and Lásló Kovács. It’s fun watching these titans of Hollywood cinema running around in the background setting up and dismantling cameras.
  • Initially, Muddy Waters’ performance wasn’t going to be filmed, as this was a designated time for the camera crew to reload. Thankfully, Lásló Kovács took off his headset (he was tired of taking Scorsese’s orders), and missed the command, capturing Waters’ “Mannish Boy” in the process. Scorsese calls the song’s appearance in the film “just luck”.
  • I think it’s safe to say that Garth Hudson is the only rock organist of any notoriety. Chest Fever!
  • Interspersed throughout the concert are interviews with The Band in their Shangri-La recording studios in Malibu. Robertson is definitely the storyteller of the group, appearing more animated than his seemingly lackadaisical cohorts. Like the studio performances, the interviews were filmed after the concert; as evident by Robertson’s mention of Elvis’ death, which occurred nine months after “The Last Waltz”.
  • So that’s what Van Morrison looks like!
  • Special mention to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, who died earlier this year at the age of 101! Ferlinghetti appears in “Waltz” to recite his poem “Loud Prayer”, one of the few pieces of poetry from the concert to make it into the film.
  • I believe this makes three NFR appearances for Bob Dylan? At least he seems happy to be there, and I can understand what he’s saying! Dylan actually tried to back out of performing at the last minute, unaware that his appearance was the reason the film was financed to begin with. It took an intervention from venue owner BIll Graham for Dylan to take the stage.
  • The finale is an all-skate of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with all of the evening’s performers, plus Ron Wood and Ringo Starr! Thanks to his appearance here, Ringo is the only Beatle on the National Film Registry. And “Last Waltz” is a lot easier to sit through than “Get Back“, let me tell you.

Legacy

  • “The Last Waltz” premiered in spring 1978 and was well received by movie and music critics alike. The most vocal dissent for this film came from Levon Helm, who wrote in his 1993 memoir “This Wheel’s on Fire” that he disapproved of the final film and its emphasis on Robbie Robertson.
  • Following the “Last Waltz” concert and their remaining studio album under contract with Capitol Records, The Band parted ways in 1977 and never performed again….until a year later when they reunited as an encore at a Rick Danko solo concert. The Band would start touring again in 1983 (minus Robbie Robertson) and would see a few personnel changes following the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. The Band disbanded for good in 1999.
  • Scorsese would return to the world of rock documentaries a few times over the years, including the Rolling Stones concert feature “Shine a Light”, and two documentaries about Bob Dylan.
  • Perhaps the most fruitful outcome of “The Last Waltz”: Robbie Robertson has helped compose and/or compile music for such Martin Scorsese films as “Raging Bull”, “Gangs of New York”, and “The Irishman”

Listen to This: Unsurprisingly, practically everyone in “The Last Waltz” pops up on the National Recording Registry. Among their ranks: The Band, the Staple Sisters, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, and Ringo Starr. Honorable mention to Eric Clapton, who is sampled on Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet“. Van Morrison, Ron Wood and Neil Young are the most conspicuous absences from this group.

And with that, we conclude our own “Last Waltz” of 2021. As always, thank you dear reader for your continued support of “The Horse’s Head”, especially those of you who have been checking in for almost five years now! We’ll be taking time off for the holidays, and returning with new posts in January. Until then, be safe and take care of each other.

Happy viewing,

Tony

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