The Last Waltz Review
It seems entirely appropriate that Martin Scorsese, who began his career as an assistant editor on Woodstock and Elvis On Tour, should have made the greatest of all rock concert films. But to describe The Last Waltz in such terms is to somehow undervalue it. This is a great documentary, examining the end of an era with wit and intelligence while serving the music with respect and affection.
The "Last Waltz" of the title was the farewell concert of The Band - or at least, The Band as it originally was - which took place at Winterland in San Francisco on November 23rd 1976. The Band originated as a spin-off from The Hawks, the group who backed Bob Dylan after his decision to go electric in 1965. During the late sixties and early seventies they produced several legendary albums including the wonderful "Music From Big Pink", undoubtably one of the most influential records in the history of pop music and they reunited with Dylan on his 1973 album "Planet Waves", followed by a lengthy tour (some of which can be found on the album "Before The Flood"). The Last Waltz was intended to be the last concert by a group who had spent much of the previous 15 years on the road in one guise or another and it became a celebration of a whole era of music, from the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters to the singer-songwriter style of Joni Mitchell. The inclusion of "one or two guests" turned into a guest list of eleven notables including the inevitable Bob Dylan and the less than welcome Neil Diamond. Martin Scorsese was invited to film a low budget record of the event on 16MM, but he became increasingly excited about the idea of making a rock concert movie on 35MM so the project grew larger than was originally intended.
An opinion on the content of the concert is inevitably based on one's own musical tastes. There was a time when I would have run screaming from any film containing this line-up but now I find most of the music simply wonderful. Inevitably, the quality varies, but the following run-down is strictly my personal view which reflects my own prejudices. The Band perform nine numbers on their own in the film, including the instrumental "Theme From The Last Waltz" and the very strange "Genetic Method/Chest Fever". Most of these are great with "Stagefright" and "It Makes No Difference" being my personal favourites, although there is also a very beautiful brass arrangement of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". "Ophelia" and "Don't Do It" leave me rather cold though and I find "Up On Cripple Creek" a rather annoying song, although it is very well performed and sung here. The guest performances range from the inspired to the ludicrous. In the latter category would be placed Neil Diamond, wearing a red suit, shades and a smug grin and singing "Dry Your Eyes", a Robbie Robertson composition which should never have seen the light of day. His presence is meant to represent the influence of the songwriters from Tin Pan Alley and The Brill Building, but I'd much rather have seen Carole King up there. Joni Mitchell isn't at her best here either, singing "Coyote", an infuriatingly fey addition to her generally disappointing post-"Blue" repertoire. Nor am I remotely thrilled to see Laurence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, Ginsberg-lite poets whose reputations have deservedly dipped in the twenty five years since the concert. However, honour is restored with some hugely entertaining additions from Ronnie Hawkins - a one trick pony but at least he does the trick well - who has a lot of fun with "Who Do You Love", and Dr John's idiosyncratic rendition of "Such A Night". Near-greatness is achieved by Neil Young's heartbreakingly gorgeous version of "Helpless" (not up there with his MTV Unplugged version of the same song but still lovely) and Eric Clapton's "Farther On Up The Road" which follows the Paul Butterfield Band's exhilarating "Mystery Train".
But for the true creme de la creme you have to look to three genuine legends. Firstly we get Muddy Waters, laying down what is, for my money, the all-time definitive version of "Mannish Boy". He looks fantastic and sounds even better. Just as memorably, at the end, we get Bob Dylan consciously ironic "Forever Young". Unusually for this period, Dylan looks halfway normal and has thankfully dispensed with the Rolling Thunder face-paint. His singing is on good form, although it's a shame we don't get to see the storming version of "I Don't Believe You" which is on the soundtrack album. He's on top form on the ensemble "I Shall Be Released" at the end as well. However, the real show-stopper is Van Morrison. Wearing the worst purple suit you have ever seen and a t-shirt which is unfortunately tight around the chest area, he sings up a storm with a version of "Caravan" so idiosyncratic that it leaves the members of The Band desperately trying to keep up while watching incredulously to see what he might do next. Just when you think it can't get any better he turns it up to 11 with some of his typically primeval vocalising accompanied by impromptu leg kicks.
You could just point a video camera at this lot and come up with a film which is worth watching, but Scorsese is not content to merely record the event. He makes it a real film. The first step was to put Boris Leven in charge of the design of the concert. Leven, who worked on West Side Story amongst other classic Hollywood films, decided to give The Band an appropriately grand setting by using a set from 'La Traviata" borrowed from the San Francisco Opera. Even though his vision of a ceiling full of chandeliers was compromised down to only three, this is still a beautiful and original design. Secondly, Michael Chapman - DP on Taxi Driver - was given overall charge of both the lighting for the concert and the seven cameras recording the event. There was no free movement for the cameras, since The Band did not wish to spoil the concert for the audience with cameramen wandering around the stage, but one hand-held camera managed to get some unobtrusive but surprisingly intimate shots of the performances. The lighting is artfully conceived with particularly striking use of the spotlight, shadow effects and the red and green filters. Thirdly, and crucially, he augments the performances with some interviews shot in 1977 at The Band's Shangri-La studios in Miami. During these, the Band members - Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson - take us through their history and the musical influences which inspired them while also suggesting the toll taken by endless touring and the frictions between individual members. The five men all look wonderfully scuzzy, like refugees from "Mean Streets", and their comments are riveting. The most memorable moments are the saddest, such as Danko taking Scorsese into his own studio to listen to one of his post-Band compositions, or Robertson saying how the road is an impossible way of life which has killed some of the greats (a comment which is especially poignant considering the events of August 1977). Scorsese himself appears on occasions as interviewer, a nervous and gauche presence which was the direct influence behind Rob Reiner's Marty DiBergi in Spinal Tap. Come to think of it, Ian Faith's cricket bat would have come in handy to shut up Neil Diamond.
This is superb filmmaking at every single level. The editing is razor sharp, putting most rock concert films to shame, and Scorsese's control over a hugely complicated shoot is a tribute to his organisational talent since the end result is seamless. Tribute should also be paid to the sound crews since the clarity of the performances is absolutely spot-on - an aspect of the film which the new 5.1 mix takes full advantage of. Scorsese's genius is also on show in the two numbers shot for the film; "The Weight" with The Staples and "Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris. The former is simply beautiful, a great song sung with immense joy and commitment. The latter is less memorable but pleasant enough. The camerawork is astonishing; crane shots, slow tracks around the singers, long takes, deep focus. Great lighting too - although the use of Catholic Easter colours during The Weight is, as Scorsese has said, rather provocative considering how Protestant the song is. The final performance has a poignancy all of its own - "The Theme From The Last Waltz" is shot in a single take, the fluidity capturing the sense of one era passing into another.
Of course, there are flaws. The whole "end of an era" concept depends on one accepting that its necessarily true. You could certainly argue that punk, far from being a destruction of the old order was simply an extension of what is being celebrated here - New Wave certainly was - and if Van Morrison hasn't got punk attitude then I don't know who has. It's also a historical fact that it wasn't the end of The Band. Danko, Hudson and Helm got back together and plodded from festival to festival in the early nineties when their careers stalled, releasing a couple of desultory studio albums. It is the end of the Band as originally formulated - and its clear that the absence of Robbie Robertson was pretty disastrous. But the self-importance of the concept doesn't detract from the huge amounts of fun present in the concert itself nor from the sheer energy of the filmmaking. This may not be Scorsese's best film but it's probably his most simply enjoyable and it emerges after 25 years as an essential part of his filmography, the point where, after the nightmare of New York New York he rediscovered the essential joy of his craft.
MGM have given us a lot of disappointing discs in the past and no doubt they will in the future, but it's a matter for celebration that they have given The Last Waltz a superb DVD release. It's hard to see how this could feasibly have been better given the materials to hand and I think it's one of the few genuinely essential discs to have emerged since the beginning of the year.
The picture quality is generally very good and, in some respects, excellent. The disc features a very nice new 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. The most impressive feature is the shadow detail which is beautifully crisp. There is little artifacting and although there is some grain present throughout this is characteristic of the original film. The colours vary from adequate to gorgeously rich - they are best showcased during the two numbers shot especially for the film. I found the blacks perfectly acceptable and the level of contrast is fine. The occasional softness of the image is, again, intentional and the detail is never less than acceptable. There is a small amount of print damage present but this is not a major problem. I certainly haven't seen the film look this good before.
There are two soundtracks on the disc. Firstly we have the original Dolby Stereo soundtrack. This is generally fine. The sound was always crisp and clear - Pauline Kael said it was better than live sound - and this track reflects that. There is some use of the right and left fields during the music and the interviews. However, the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is even better. Although obviously an artificial creation, the channels have been used with due respect for the original sound and the effect is very pleasing. There is plenty of surround action and the occasional use of the sub is nicely done. This is a very involving track and I felt it really enhanced a film with which I am very familiar.
The supplements are equally impressive. MGM have taken this film and really made an effort to provide extras which are informative and entertaining.
Firstly, we get a new 22 minute documentary about the making of the film. Although this only features interviews with Robertson and Scorsese, their comments are fascinating and relevant and plenty of information is packed into the short running time. Scorsese emphasises the planning of the film - every song lyric was storyboarded - and the problems of production when the cameras began running out of film. Robertson discusses the background to the concert and the performances. It's short but valuable and there aren't too many extraneous clips from the film.
The 'rare, unseen footage' consists of a 12 minute clip of an impromptu jam session between some of the stars of the concert. It's nothing special but when the guests include Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Dr John and the Band then you're clearly getting something pretty special. It's a lot of fun to watch but it's also easy to see why this rather ragged performance was not included in the finished film. As with the film, you get the option of 5.1 or 2.0 soundtracks but both are equally good, and the clip is in anamorphic 1.85:1.
We get the original theatrical trailer and a brief TV spot and there is an extensive photo gallery which is, sensibly, partitioned into four sections.
Best of all, however, are the two audio commentaries. The first, featuring Robertson and Scorsese is pretty standard stuff but these are interesting men who have plenty to say. Robertson is commenting while watching the film while Scorsese's comments are interpolated - it's fair to say that Robertson dominates the track and has much more input into this commentary. The second track is a delight, featuring music guru Greil Marcus (author of "Invisible Republic", a great book about The Band), Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks and the tour manager for The Band Jonathan Taplin (who also produced Mean Streets). They are all entertaining enough but the real treat is when some of the musicians begin to comment as well. Levon Helm is fascinating on the stories behind the performances, Ronnie Hawkins is, well, Ronnie Hawkins and Dr John is on a totally different planet. I won't give away too much but it's worth hearing just for the moment when Dr John slags off "Such A Night" despite it being his biggest hit song.
There are a generous 34 chapters, indexed around the songs in the film, and some nicely animated menus. The subtitles, sadly, do not include the song lyrics but if you're like me, you'll know the words already so it's not a major problem. There's also a rather nice little booklet which comes with the DVD, written by Robbie Robertson and giving some valuable background information for newcomers to The Band.
In some ways, this is Scorsese's least known major film, possibly because it's a documentary, and that's something which this DVD should go some way to putting right. It's a wonderful piece of filmmaking and as personal as any of Scorsese's more famous films. Even if you're allergic to the music - and there must be at least one number here for everybody - the ambience and the interviews are worth seeing in themselves. The DVD is a great package and as essential a purchase as anything else released so far this year.