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The Band – “The Last Waltz” DVD-A…Scorcese can’t dance

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In 1978, Martin Scorcese’s ground breaking documentary on the Band was released. It showed not only the end of a band…but the end of a cultural phenomena. Last year, the film was reworked with bonus footage and was released with an accompanying remastered DVD-A version of the original soundtrack. So with that in mind, let’s revisit the shape they were in…

Everyone knows the story…The Band started as a backing group to Ronnie Hawkins. In the mid-60’s, they were stolen by Bob Dylan becoming his sidemen and then branched off as the Canadian Squires. No longer happy to be the background; they chose to reinvent themselves as a main stage attraction. They simply became known as The Band…and became the backing band of an entire generation…

Between the time of 1968 to 1978 the Band’s solo recorded output consisted of 8 albums in which 3 were top 10’s. During that time they also figured in prominently on Muddy Water’s “Woodstock Album”, and shared billing with Bob Dylan on a couple of top 5 albums. As 1976 approached, The Band became more concerned with solo efforts and collaborations than performing as a whole. As their interest in continuing together waned, The Band looked to film maker Martin Scorcese to document their last gig.

It was on November the 25th, 1976, that the band would stage their “Last Waltz” together. As a tribute, many of their friends and associates turned up at Bill Graham’s Winterland to participate in this farewell performance. Scorcese’s camera caught that evenings events with a stark nakedness that has yet to be replicated. The actual concert extended over some 5 hours with dozens of hours set aside for candid interviews and monologues. The final package hit theaters and stores after some 16 months of editing. The film itself has become an art house staple and the soundtrack became a stand alone sensation peaking at #16…

The Band’s “Last Waltz” as a film and soundtrack is truly a study in contrasts. On the one hand, we hear the rapture of their recorded output…on the other, we bear witness to their sharp decline. One medium perpetuates the myth…the other glorifies the legend. It is with that contrast in mind that I’ll give you my impressions of The Band’s “Last Waltz” both as a documentary and as a stand alone soundtrack…

The Band – “The Last Waltz” by Martin Scorcese

The documentary brought to film by Martin Scorcese thrusts a band of generic looking bit players uncomfortably into the spotlight. These guys seem completely out of their element – void of personality and chemistry. The in-concert segments are by and large stolen by the guest performers. The viewer is immediately drawn to the obvious superstars of the day…Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond. Even the lesser knowns like Paul Butterfield and Dr. John stand out in stark contrast to the homogenous make-up of the band. Robbie Robertson tries for all the world to be a frontman but is dwarfed by the ease and laid back charm of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Muddy Waters makes love to the audience with sheer pelvic thrustin’ boot-stompin’ energy. In fact; every guest from Emmylou Harris to Ron Wood draws the spotlight away from the film’s namesake showband.

That’s not to say that the Band is inept; on the contrary, their playing is more than capable…its fiery, soulful, and touching. They simply lack the stage presence to be the main characters.

I can understand the appeal of the film and why all the critics have branded it as the best rock concert documentary ever filmed. For my money though, the soundtrack stands alone in its merit while the romanticism of the film belies a deeper, darker pessisism.

In one offstage interview, Robertson talks candidly of getting drunk with a harmonica blowing blues musician so close to death that his spitoon is soon filled with blood. Robbie and the rest talk of their sadness with the bluesman’s “surprisingly sudden” death when over Robertson’s shoulder a stark gaunt-faced Richard Manuel foretells imminent disaster. It is this bleak presentation of Manuel’s troubled existence that is unsettling and lasting. In the film we see the drug-addled genius stumble around stiltingly and sing with halting emotion. At one point, Scorcese does a 1 on 1 with Manuel that is both heartbreaking and confusing.

How could the rest of The Band not see how close Manuel was to a complete and utter end? The unfair assumption of course is that everyone else was seemingly straight, caught up in their own affairs and in better shape. The truth of the matter is that all were suffering in deep dark recesses. This was afterall the mid ’70’s…a time of backstage white rooms of coke and riders of whiskey by the caseload. The enduring theme of the film is Manuel at death’s door with Rick Danko slowly on his way. To further foreshadow, a forlorn Danko sings,

It makes no difference how far I go
Like a scar the hurt will always show
It makes no difference who I meet
They’re just a face in the crowd
on a dead end street

To me, Scorcese’s film reduces the legacy of the Band to a visual scar that will forever show the hurt of Manuel’s and later Rick Danko’s trip down that dead end street. Powerful imagery to be sure…but through it all the poignancy of the end stands out in stark contrast to the music.

The Band – “The Last Waltz” DVD-A

The soundtrack to The Band’s “The Last Waltz” is immediately gratifying and is a stand-alone gem. These remastered tracks on DVD-A are all rollicking barrel-house fun. In it we hear The Band in full free form flight rather than suffering the visual distraction of impending dissolution. No longer a gathering of sidemen; Robertson, Danko, Helm, Hudson and even Manuel shine through in every aspect of this recording. As a rhythm section, The Band plows a road straight through to the soul. Robertson’s guitar work on “The Last Waltz” takes on a sensibility and depth that is forthright, captivating and endearing.

Remastered in 5.1 surround, the listener is seated at the head table of a joyous occasion. Its truly an audiophile feast served up with generous helpings of ragtime, folk, boogie and even funk.

As with most 5.1 live recordings , the soundtrack to “The Last Waltz” uses the rear channels sparingly thus saving them for the rebounding echo that comes from typical concert hall acoustics. On the original release, the acoustics are swallowed up by the spaciousness of the room. On the DVD-A version, Levon Helm’s drum kit drives the subwoofer with sharp rapid punches of bass. Robertson’s tone sparkles like burnished gold. All the nuances of Danko’s vocals come through with the majesty of an entire gospel choir. If there’s one failing, its in the keyboard mix. Garth Hudson’s contribution is a little light in the mix and should’ve been eased up a little.

This recording also comes in a high resolution stereo format just in case your system isn’t capable of surround sound. Important to note: this is a DVD-A disc meaning it will NOT waltz in your cd player. Surprisingly enough; I rather enjoyed the still photographs included as a menu option. Where the film exploited stumbled failings and apparent discomfort….the photographs all captured moments of bliss and mutual respect…

With that said; I prefer the music to the drama. The Band’s legacy is best remembered through their music. As a film, “The Last Waltz” is best viewed as a documentary of excess and endearing discomfort.

So there…for other suroound sound news, views and spews, visit surroundablog.com

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  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Ron, great stuff. I have to admit i never really saw The Last Waltz in this light before. Its one of my favourite Scorsese films, but i always saw it as a validictory affair. The comments you amke about the band being overshadowed by the guests is valid, but i think, not entirely fair. The performance of The Weight is among the most electrifying moments in the film.
    It’s an incredible film, and one i intend to revist in the next couple nights following your article. Good stuff.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Ron, another very fine one – I share your enthusiasm for the Band