Capturing the end of an era as well as several major musicians at their peak, The Last Waltz is one the great rock concert films.
From the start of his directing career, Martin Scorsese’s films have been marked by a deep affinity for music, especially the pop and rock music he listened to growing up. Take, for example, the opening of Mean Streets, his third and breakthrough feature film, and its use of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”. Or, in the same film, Johnny Boy’s (Robert De Niro) entrance to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Alongside his dramatic features, Scorsese has made documentaries, many of them have been on musical subjects – profiles of Bob Dylan (No Direction Home, 2005) and George Harrison (Living in the Material World, 2011) and another concert movie, Shine a Light (2008) – all were preceded by The Last Waltz, released in 1978.
The Last Waltz is a film of The Band’s farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, on 25 November 1976. After sixteen years on the road, they had decided to call it a day, and so Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboards, brass, woodwind), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals) and Robbie Robertson (guitars) assembled one last time, with a set of special guests, none of whom had been announced in advance. The concert followed dinner, and began at 9pm, carrying on until 2am. The film begins at the end, with the encore, “Don’t Do It”. The Band began as The Hawks, backing Ronnie Hawkins, and it’s Hawkins who makes the first guest appearance with “Who Do You Love?”, featuring a solo which served notice of Robertson’s abilities as a guitarist. The Band’s other major collaboration in the 1960s, was with Bob Dylan, and Dylan’s guest appearance is at the end of the film.
However, The Band made its greatest impact with the albums they made on their own, especially the first two, Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). At a time when rock music was increasing in volume and speed – which The Band had contributed to during Dylan’s first electric tour of 1965/6 – and psychedelia was in full efflorescence, The Band’s music startled by slowing things down, and as a result influencing the country-rock of The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, and across the Atlantic, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. There’s something down-home and quintessentially American about them, especially when you see the five of them bearded or moustached on the sepia-toned cover of The Band. Ironically, with the exception of the Arkansas-born Helm they were Canadians rather than Americans, which only goes to show that authenticity in spirit can easily outweigh authenticity in fact.
Martin Scorsese’s connection to The Band was via Jonathan Taplin, who had been The Band’s tour manager between 1969 and 1972 and had also produced Mean Streets. When Scorsese was invited to make a film record of the farewell concert, the original intention was to shoot in 16mm, which had been the case with such major concert/festival films as Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter, Woodstock (on which Scorsese had been part of the editorial team) and Concert for Bangla Desh. However, taking his cue from Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970), Scorsese decided instead to shoot in 35mm. He worked with Robertson, planning camera moves in advance, song by song. Scorsese was planning The Last Waltz at the same time as he was making New York, New York, and he recruited that film’s production designer Boris Leven (a nine-time Oscar nominee, winning for West Side Story) to design the stage set, giving the proceedings an appropriate grandeur. Three songs in the film – “The Weight” (with The Staples), “Evangeline” (with Emmylou Harris) and “Theme from The Last Waltz” – were shot in a studio after the event, as were Scorsese’s interviews with The Band. Robertson tends to dominate these, while Manuel comes over as twitchy and nervous.
One way in which Scorsese and his crew took advantage of modern cinema technology was in the soundtrack. Many of the concert films above had been shown in showcase cinemas with four-track magnetic stereo soundtracks, six-track in the cases of Woodstock, The Concert for Bangla Desh and Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which were also released blown up to 70mm. However, Dolby noise reduction had arrived by the mid 1970s, and a year and a half before The Last Waltz, A Star is Born had been the first Dolby Stereo film with surround information on its 35mm prints. Between those two release dates, the commercial potential of Dolby Stereo had been established by a certain film by the name of Star Wars, but it’s fair to say that The Last Waltz was the state of the art as far a music-based films sounded as well as looked, on a cinema screen.
For the sheer quality of the acts on display, The Last Waltz would be a major music documentary. No one is bad, and several performances are stunning. Even someone who might seem a little out of place like Neil Diamond, a singer-songwriter in a different tradition, rises to the occasion. What makes the film a great one is its elegiac feel, a farewell to the music of the previous decade and those who had influenced that music, of men (and a few women) who were young then and were now facing middle age with a few scars and knocks gained along the way. It’s also a farewell to the concert movie as it had been known for the last decade, with the very different Stop Making Sense being something of a late entry in 1984. Within less than a decade the large-scale concert would become a creature of live television, beamed by satellite across the world, and not something to sell to cinema audiences after the event.
The Band reformed in 1983 without Robbie Robertson, who then was involved in film work, including further collaborations with Scorsese. Richard Manuel took his own life in 1986, and Robertson’s first solo album, released the following year, opens with his tribute to Manuel, “Fallen Angel”. As Robertson says in the film, the road had already taken some of the finest by then, and it would take a few more. Rick Danko died of a heart attack in 1999 and Levon Helm in 2012 of cancer.
This Blu-ray release of The Last Waltz is Masters of Cinema number 200. The film has always had a U certificate, but some strong language in the second commentary track raises the overall package to a 15. It is presented in the intended ratio of 1.85:1. The colours seem true and grain – of which there is quite a bit in some of the darker scenes – is natural and film-like, and this does look the way the film did from my one cinema viewing, which was on its reissue in 2011 (though that was a DCP rather than a 35mm print).
The soundtrack is available either in DTS-HD MA 5.1 or LPCM 2.0 (Surround). The latter is closer to the original 4.0 theatrical track (which was restored, with Robertson supervising, in 2002) but there isn’t much to choose from between them. The clarity was what impressed then and now, but even without a dedicated LFE channel, Danko’s bass and Helm’s drums come through powerfully. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available, which usefully begin each song with the title as well as transcribing the lyrics. As the man says, play it loud.
There are two commentary tracks on this disc. The first features Robertson and Scorsese, who between them talk through the conception of the concert and film and its making. We do hear some of the things that went wrong: lighting failing, cameras running out of power, Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” only captured because Laszlo Kovacs, operating one camera, had taken his headphones off and hadn’t heard instructions to take a break. The second commentary track made up of edited-together contributions from several people: Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, journalist (and Scorsese collaborator) Jay Cocks, journalist Greil Marcus, creative consultant Mardik Martin, producers Jonathan Taplin and Steven Prince, cinematographer Michael Chapman, music producer John Simon, film producer Irwin Winkler, plus performers Mavis Staples, Dr John and Ronnie Hawkins. Needless to say, there’s a lot to take in here, and this disc has a useful subtitle option of identifying each change of speaker, unless they specifically introduce themselves by name. Maybe more discs with multi-participant commentaries could do something similar.
“Revisiting The Last Waltz” (22:30) is an interview with Scorsese and Robertson, dating from 2002, which inevitably overlaps with their commentary track, but has plenty of interest.
The entire concert lasted some five hours and there were plenty of songs which do not appear in the film. They were recorded, and so appeared on the soundtrack album. (There were also poetry readings, of which two are in the film.) However, as these performances weren’t filmed, there aren’t any deleted scenes – except for one. This is “Jam #2” (12:16), which followed the ensemble performance of “I Shall Be Released” and The Band’s encore which begins the film. A self-navigating stills gallery is divided into four sections: “The Concert” (4:56), “The Studio Shoot” (2:42), “The NYC Premiere” (0:41) and “Posters and Lobby Cards” (0:54). Also on the disc are a the theatrical trailer (2:45) and a TV spot (0:31).
Also included in this limited edition is a 100-page book. It begins with a 2002 piece by Robbie Robertson, which covers the inception and making of the concert and film. Then, we go back to 1978, and Greil Marcus interviews Scorsese after the premiere. This is an observational essay as much as an interview, with Marcus noting that film posters were all the artworks on Scorsese’s walls. The discussion is mostly about rock music, and some of it I didn’t know – for example, Scorsese based the first fifteen minutes of Taxi Driver on Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks. “The One That Goes Up to 11” is a new essay by Adam Batty, a tribute to the film and its impact. Also in the book are the original production notes, Scorsese’s 2016 forward to the film’s published shooting script, storyboards, Boris Leven’s production sketches and Mardik Martin’s memories of the film. Also in the book are plenty of stills and poster designs.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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