With Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator in theatres now, I thought I’d revisit an old film of his – after all, it’s only one of the greatest concert films ever made. And what a film it is: true, The Last Waltz‘s star-studded lineup of the Band, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, and others makes this a record of some kind of magic nexus of great musicians, but Scorsese also manages to make this a true film, rather than just concert footage spliced together.
The Last Waltz preserves the Band’s final 1976 performance (held at San Francisco’s justly famous Winterland) on celluloid, and it certainly brings one back to less slick times in concerts. There’s a spontaneity to the performances, and an eccentricity as well – which modern performers would put someone onstage to read out the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in Chaucerian English to boot? Which modern performers would risk the wrath of parts of their audience by asking a guest to read a poem that references the Lord’s Prayer? Yet there Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are, respectively, onstage.
The Band was a group with the most anonymous of names, designed to emphasise the music over the individual members (the effortlessly multi-talented Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm). Although the members were largely Canadian, they slipped effortlessly across the border to form a quintessentially American roots band. The Last Waltz depicts a band in pursuit of their own musical interests, trends of the times be damned – pursuing roots music long before O Brother, Where Art Thou? sparked any sort of revival, for instance – and the film showcases the Band in two modes: as the finest backup musicians to roam the 70s, and as immensely talented headliners.
Interspersed with the songs are interviews with members of the Band that show their passion for the music and their grappling with fame. Perhaps it’s a reflection of less guarded times, when rock stars were more willing to be confessional to the camera, or perhaps it just reflects Scorsese’s masterful elicitation of responses; either way, The Last Waltz, unlike other concert films, manages to actually say something with the interview segments. Through the interviews, various strands of thought and musical interest are made clear, strands that are paralleled in the song choices.
And so the varied list of guest performers makes sense: rather than just clustering a constellation of stars, the Band was spotlighting its myriad tastes and influences, and so everyone from the Staples Singers (who add a lovely gospel lilt to “The Weight”) to Eric Clapton (who has a great guitar duel with Robbie Robertson) to Muddy Waters makes an appearance. The Last Waltz captured the Band going out at their height. More than that, it also freezes in celluloid some of the musicians of the 70s at the peaks of their respective prowesses – Joni Mitchell, Clapton, Morrison (perhaps no finer live version of “Caravan” exists), and Emmylou Harris among them. Even Neil Diamond gives a credible performance here (of “Dry Your Eyes”).
Scorsese’s work in shaping the feel of The Last Waltz must be acknowledged. Throughout the interviews, there’s a recurring sense of nostalgia among the band members for something lost as the Band grew famous, which, combined with their still-evident love of music, clearly lends the film a wistful tone, and the sense of one final hurrah captured. Like the band it depicts, The Last Waltz looks raw (thanks in part to Scorsese and DP Michael Chapman shooting the film in dark moody lighting) and yet is perfectly polished. Which is why it remains the jewel of concert films.
Taken from Delta Sierra ArtsPowered by Sidelines