FAVE MUSIC MOVIE – The Last Waltz (1978)
“THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD”
This film opens with those six words in white on a black screen. They were simple instructions possibly coming from its director, Martin Scorsese. The Last Waltz is a remarkable concert film interspersed with fresh interview segments that documents the planned final performance of The Band. And yes, it certainly deserves to be played loud. In fact, I’ve been known to make the walls in my study rattle when I crank up the volume while watching it on DVD.
It’s now been over 40 years since The Band called it quits after this historic star-studded show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. And sadly, the three magnificent voices of The Band, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm are no longer with us. Only guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Garth Hudson remain. So, what makes this movie extra-special is that it serves as the definitive document of one of the greatest live rock bands of all time.
After six studio LPs and a long history of playing together, the guys decided to pack it in and do a special farewell Thanksgiving Day performance (November 25, 1976) and their manager, Jonathan Taplin, got Marty to make a movie about it which he shot in 35 mm film.
To this day, it surprises me about that this show didn’t sell out. Come on! The Band was still at the top of their playing form and was it really a surprise that Bob Dylan was going to be there? The price of the ticket even included a turkey dinner. I guess in those pre-internet lagging economy days, concert news wasn’t as easy to come by and folks also weren’t as likely to hop on a plane to see a show like they would today.
The guest stars for the evening included all the important folks in The Band’s history such as Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Butterfield and Van Morrison as well as fellow Canadian contemporaries like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It was also cool to see Eric Clapton play with The Band since after the breakup of Cream, he sincerely asked if he could become a band member (pun intended). There was also both a Beatle (Ringo) and a Stone (Ronnie Wood) joining in on the fun. The only guest who seemed out of place was Neil Diamond whose presence was the only result of Robbie Robertson having just produced his Beautiful Noise LP.
The performances were all brilliantly filmed, and the sound quality is spectacular. Immediately, from the opening licks of their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” you know you are in for something special and will have trouble sitting still. Yes, the guest spots are great, but to me the importance of The Last Waltz is reminding me just how great The Band was live. (Yours truly got to see the original line-up a total of seven times.)
The between-song interview bits are fun and rather than distract, they serve as nice transitions, especially when going between special guests. There are also a few special songs filmed on a soundstage which in my opinion, break the flow, and if at the time they knew what was to come, would have been better left for DVD bonus tracks instead.
There is quite a bit of legend around the filming of The Last Waltz such as squabbles among The Band members and guests, everyone having to deal with Robertson’s controlling nature and whether that really was a cocaine booger in Neil Young’s nose. I guess I could really care less, and all I have to say is if it is ever re-run in a local theater near you, go! Otherwise, buy the DVD or Blu-Ray and crank it up. Live music on film just doesn’t get any better than this.