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The Last Waltz

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I had hoped to review Peter Gabriel’s latest album for today’s blitz, but I could not get a copy in time. So I decided to say a few words on one of my all-time favorite albums and movies, The Band and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Regarded by many as the greatest rock movie ever made (although I think that honor goes, just barely, to Stop Making Sense), The Last Waltz documents The Band’s historic farewell event held at the Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. Directed by Scorsese, the film not only documents a great concert featuring many of the biggest names in rock, but also serves as a look back at the history of The Band that is at times funny, touching and sad.
First off, the newly restored film looks and sounds great. As the opening title says, “This film should be played loud.” The concert was shot like a film, unlike the vast majority of concert movies, and the myriad cameras allowed Scorsese to get inside the action. There are very few shots that show the audience – the idea is to immerse the viewer into the action on stage so you feel as if you are at the concert, rather than watching other people have a good time at the concert. This technique works well with the stage design, which has the feel of an antique store. There is nothing flashy here, no crazy light show, no swooping cameras. It feels real and looks great.

I’ve always felt that The Band were quite unique in their ability to be both a great backup band and a great “band” band, and they shift effortlessly between the two roles here. The guest list is remarkable- Dylan, Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Paul Butterfield, even Neil Diamond. The only real low point in the movie is the performance of Who Do You Love by Ronnie Hawkins. It is somewhat embarrassing, especially given the power of the rest of the performances. Some of the best highlights include Neil Young singing Helpless with Joni Mitchell harmonizing, silhouetted by a white sheet; an obviously drunk Van Morrison trying to do high kicks while belting out Caravan; studio shots of The Band with the Staples on The Weight and with Emmylou Harris on Evangeline. These are but a few; the whole movie is filled with amazing songs, performances and filmcraft.
The Last Waltz is interspersed with Scorsese interviewing The Band about their long years on the road. They tell stories about long-gone roadhouses and old bluesmen. The scene with Rick Danko at the mixing board is particularly moving. They all come off as extremely weary and somewhat down. They look like they have seen it all, and they probably have.

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About Aaron Cutler


    Well, since this post was dredged up, and I just bought a copy of the Last Waltz, let me add that it is really one of the best rock concert movies ever. Then again, the band was a truly exceptional gorup of musicians. I am disappointed that the full length “CHest Fever ” waas not included.