See The Last Waltz in a Theater (if you can)

The Last Waltz (1978)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
United Artists, 117 minutes, Not-rated.

There is a moment in The Last Waltz that is chiseled in my memory. Rick Danko stands at the microphone and sings the lead to “Stage Fright.” He is filmed from behind with a cone of frontal light highlighting the contours of his hair as if he were John the Baptist being anointed by the Holy Spirit.

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but who had ever seen a rock concert filmed like this before? Martin Scorsese wasn’t exactly an unknown in 1975–he had, after all, directed Mean Streets (1973)–but he was still a hungry up and coming director who had not yet directed Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellahs, The Age of Innocence, or The Wolf of Wall Street; Taxi Driver was still in production. Scorsese’s mastery on The Last Waltz was such the National Film Registry found it of enduring cultural and historical significance. It’s why a rockumentary is held by the Library of Congress.

Many observers call The Last Waltz the greatest concert film of all time. That’s subjective, but in my mind it’s a toss-up between it and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984), the latter of which owes a debt to Scorsese. For those who don’t know, The Last Waltz documents the final concert of the Canadian-American rock ensemble known as The Band: Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, fiddle, vocals), Levon Helm (percussion, mandolin, vocals), Richie Manuel (keys, dobro), and Garth Hudson (keys, saxophone). After 17 years on the road, The Band decided to call it quits and held a musical going away party on November 25, 1975 at promoter Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.

It had been a glorious run for a group of guys initially called The Hawks because they backed rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. In 1965, the group became the guys in the background for an even more famous figure: Bob Dylan. Dylan simply referred to them as “the band,” and the name stuck. As The Band, they racked up a number of hits in their own right, among them: “Ophelia,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” I think Levon Helms might have been the first drummer I ever saw who sang lead vocals. (Or maybe it was Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees.)

Recently I had an opportunity to see a restored print of The Last Waltz and it’s even better than I remembered it. Who could wish for a better retirement bash than one featuring guests such as Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Doctor John, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, and Ronny Wood? There was also a parade of poets, not the least of which was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Oh yeah, Dylan showed up as well and it might be the only time in his career in which he laughed, thanked the audience, and was in a good mood. This film could be subtitled “Dylan Smiles.”

The opening credits implore, “This film should be played loud.” Damn right! Everyone who sees it has a favorite moment. I have several. Robertson was on fire during the evening and reminds us that he is an underrated guitarist. If you doubt that, watch his duet with Eric Clapton on “Further on Up the Road.” It’s also great fun to see Muddy Waters digging deep on “Mannish Boy” and Dylan singing a tight version of “Forever Young.” But the moment that brings me to my knees is Neil Young getting off to a false start (feedback issues) before hunkering over his harmonica and leading everyone into a gorgeous version of “Helpless.” From back stage comes a soaring harmony of crystalline purity: Joni Mitchell. The song builds to a climax with Danko, Robertson, and Young crowding around the mic and Mitchell texturing from the wings. It is, simply, the best version of this beloved Neil Young song I’ve ever heard. I was literally in tears. Maybe you will have a different favorite moment, but whatever it is, pay attention to how Scorsese moved the cameras, interspliced interviews and music, and filmed light and shadow.

This film can be viewed on YouTube, but my advice is: Don’t. Do. It. Hold out for a big screen version of it in a theater with sound that can do it justice. And, yes, it should be played loud. I’d add, “This film should be viewed BIG.” There have been criticisms of The Last Waltz. Helm, for instance, claimed Robertson hijacked it and put himself front and center. (Hey, he produced it!) No matter what anyone says, though, Marty Scorsese redefined how we think of a rock doc. MTV debuted three years after The Last Waltz was first in theaters and it is yet to marry music and art with Scorsese’s aplomb. 

Rob Weir

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