The Last Waltz: Was It Really That Good?

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Although officially released in 1978, The Last Waltz was actually recorded two years prior; a fact that saved me from not having a premise to write about it – this year marks the documentary’s 40-year old anniversary. Four decades ago, The Band stepped on the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom for what was advertised as their “farewell concert appearance”. And even with subsequent reunions and comebacks, The Last Waltz still is the last glimpse of Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson all together on a stage. But with a little twist: a set of all-star musicians join them, first one by one and ultimately culminating in a big sing-along finale.

A reborn (not in the Christian sense yet) Bob Dylan screams his way through Baby Let Me Follow You Down as a throwback to the controversial 1966 tours where The Band electrically backed him up; but also does the tender Forever Young, taken from an underrated album that saw both him and the group as wise and experienced rather than young and hungry. Neil Young’s performance may be remembered by the trivia fact that the amount of coke around his nose was so huge that it had to be edited out post-production, but his world-weary rendition of Helpless is no less noteworthy. Eric Clapton is caught up in the blues fever when the strap on his guitar suddenly comes off – and without hesitation Robbie Robertson takes the lead making for a spontaneous guitar dialogue between the two. Ronnie Hawkins a.k.a. the man who actually discovered The Band members one by one and took them under his wild, rock ‘n’ roll guidance offers a performance that sounds exactly like what I imagine an uncompromised night-club show would sound like. Van Morrison’s exuberance shakes. Joni Mitchell’s voice haunts. Muddy Waters creates the night’s best foot-stomp moment. And so on and so forth.

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Not only do most of the guests offer quality performances (even Neil Diamond is OK), but they also blend in with The Band’s sound (or vice versa) so much so that it feels natural for them to be there on stage together. And that’s besides The Band’s very own classic songs. I mean, we all may have our favorite deep album cuts that we would like to see live, but when the event is of this big proportions you have to do the classics – and that’s exactly what they do, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight, The Shape I’m In and the rest are all present. Does any of them improve on the original? Maybe not (although It Makes No Difference certainly is more soulful), but the horn section is a nice addition all the same.

So what’s the problem then? Well, to be honest, it’s exactly those big proportions that I mentioned before. The large scale of the whole event. The Band made the best out of the experience, but the question is whether they really needed this type of experience in the first place. Let’s remember that this is a group that treasured the homespun character of their music. The DIY aesthetics. Their best albums were literally recorded in basements for God’s sake! They not only started low-key, but that’s actually exactly what put them on the musical map. What made them stand out – the rejection of psychedelia’s excesses and the focus on the American roots instead. This is a band that sang about rocking chairs, The American Civil War, farmers’ struggle, unfaithful servants and thieves. And what’s exactly what made them who they are.

MJ - last waltz

The Last Waltz has always seemed inadequate to this fan. It is the type of career end that I would expect from bands such as Pink Floyd or ELP. This is not a critique on either of the two, it’s just that with them it would feel like the right move to do. And I would never dare to complain about Martin Scorsese’s cinematography, but his perfectionism and attention to detail again seem out of place. It should all have a more rugged and spontaneous feel. A reviewer once described Robbie Robertson’s extensive camera time as Scorsese turning him into a lead character, but does a group as democratic as The Band really need a lead character? Just give them all their share of spotlight. They deserve it, as musically they would always contribute equally anyway. And it is quite a travesty that Richard Manuel, the heart of the band, is shown so little throughout the movie, whatever state he was in.

In the end I just want to say that there are a few clips on YouTube showing The Band jamming away on King Harvest (Has Surely Come) and Up on Cripple Creek in their little wooden cabin, with a small audience and a rural landscape glimpsed outside the windows. At one point, a dog walks in the studio. And that to me is far more representative of The Band and what they meant than a dozen rock stars joining them on the stage will ever be.

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33 replies

  1. No it wasn’t that good. Nobody was at their best. It was a big hype. Those spectaculars always fall down. The end result was like one of those Hollywood celebrity events – it did nobody justice.

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  2. It’s incredibly sad if you listen to the interviews, especially the Danko sections.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes! That scene is just heartbreaking – “Just makin’ music you know, tryin’ to stay busy…”

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    • Those interviews were recorded some months after the concert. And they really were heartbreaking. Robbie decided he was done with the Band, and therefore they were done. But the rest of the guys got back together without Robbie, although it was obviously never the same. A lot of the magic that made the Band what they were had already died out by the time they recorded The Last Waltz. But even with their most majestic performances behind them, they still made one of the greatest concert films ever.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Spot on, Ovidiu. I remember watching this for the first time and feeling the whole thing was somewhat overwhelmingly underwhelming. Overwhelmed by the ‘variety performance’ and the feeling the whole thing was not in the spirit of what I knew of the band. Or at least what I loved. Those things being exactly what you mentioned here. That stuff in Robbie Robertson’s studio, however … that’s how I remember The Band.

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  4. Nice piece. I’m with you. Although it’s got to be about 20 years since I watched it, so the memories fade.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I fully understand your point and agree it fell short of the hype. With that said, seeing Muddy Waters singing (after they lost one camera from the front) and Joni Mitchell singing a haunting back-up to Neil Young, with her in silhouette, were memorable. Eric Clapton said in his biography he admired The Band, so to see him there was a nice tribute. So, I still found it entertaining nonetheless.

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  6. I concur. Taken as a whole, TLW is kinda underwhelming. There are plenty of gems – Neil’s “Helpless” is a fave – and The Band doesn’t disappoint. Some of the blame has to go to the music media, who have hyped the crap outta the show for the last 40 years, but I think that it’s still essential viewing for any serious music fan.

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  7. Truthfully, I haven’t seen this movie in years so I’d have to go back and watch it. I don’t recall being particularly blown away now that I think about it. I had a lot more fun with “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” I think that as much of the hype was due to Scorsese directing it as anything else. All of a sudden it goes from being a rock concert to a ‘film.’ I would say a similar halo hung over ‘Stop Making Sense’ because Jonathan Demme directed it. All of a sudden, a film to be taken seriously. Let us revel in the fact that Kubrick didn’t direct Magical Mystery Tour or they’d be studying it in film school.

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  8. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a video of a full concert by The Band in July 1976 (a few months before The Last waltz was filmed):

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  9. My attraction to “The Last Waltz” was actually as more of a Scorsese fan. While I’ve always appreciated their excellent musicality, and their place in American musicana, I’ve never been the biggest of fans. But my view of the Band was that they always liked, and perhaps cherished, their underdog status So I have to agree with you when you say that the Band were never big enough to stage of the grand send-off. At that time, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese where actually living together, so that may explain the path to this otherwise excellent concert film. But a part of me, knowing the band’s outsider status, says they may have been slightly embarrassed by the mythic tone of the flick.
    Really dig your blog, btw!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The Last Waltz is really a showcase of Robertson’s ambition. When I first saw it, I wondered what the hype was all about. But if I cut out the hoopla, I saw it as a decent concert film. However, I would never have this as an introduction to The Band’s music.

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  11. Nope.
    They made my favourite album of all time, but I’m ready to accept that Robbie Robertson is the Band’s Mike Love…
    Best part: Van Morrison’s drunken goose-stepping 😉

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    • Curious about the Mike Love reference. Is that due to Love’s popularity (or lack thereof) and so Robertson is that guy? Certainly not on talent. One of Duane Allman’s fave guitarists plus an outstanding songwriter.

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  12. I can’t comment on the quality of the documentary/movie because I’ve never watched it. I’m trying to work out in my mind, why the heck not? I like The Band, like Joni Mitchell, so in theory I should have investigated this. It’s possible that at, or around the time of release my musical influences were completely different to what’s on offer here.

    The Clash, Sex Pistols, Jam, Stranglers, Ruts, Damned, Buzzcocks, Cure, Siouxsie, Skids, 999, Penetration, X Ray Spex, P.I.L, Squeeze, XTC,….my listening world was hopelessly provincial, possibly angry, few chords, minimal tunes, no hippie philosophies, sneering at anything over 3 minutes long. I simply can’t see how this would have fitted into my world at the time.

    Fortunately, my horizons broadened in the 80s and maybe now, with years of listening to a kaleidoscope of different musical genres, I’m ready for “The Last Waltz”.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Sometimes the all-star tribute band thing gets a little old, but I love how the concert shows the Band were so good and so smart and so tight, they could play anything with anyone (with some rehearsal, of course). It’s not their greatest recorded concert; that honor still goes to Rock of Ages. But it’s damn good.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I remember expecting more and thinking I would have enjoyed it more if it didn’t have all the build up. In other words, average.

    I had been thinking of revisiting the film and then changed my mind after seeing a few clips on Youtube. You convinced me that I made the right choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thanks for your ‘Follow’!!! Got me to yours, which is Fantastic! and now I’m a Follower 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I haven’t seen The Last Waltz for years but have only fond memories of it. The first time I saw it was about two years after it came out at a midnight showing at a small-town theater where I grew up. Back then I didn’t know much of The Band and so was mostly amazed at the cavalcade of guests. The performances that still stick most firmly in my mind are Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes” and the in-studio video of Emmylou Harris on “Evangeline.” I wonder what I’d think of it now given that I am much more in touch with The Band itself. Thanks for a great post that has me on a quest to see this film again soonest.

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  17. Yup it was that good! Great live music. It was good then and it’s good today. Mixed bag of artists backed by The Band. Can’t lose. A CB fave.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I agree that the scale and the showbiz element are not very Band-like, but it’s the best we’re going to get so I value it partly for that reason. Somebody obviously thought having a horn section would make it special, but I don’t agree: it changes the nature of things. I used to have a live version of Baby Don’t Do It with just the five of them but I’ve lost it and the brass on this spoils it for me. Also the coked-out attempts to be witty are irritating and I could have done without Neil Diamond. The best part for me is Evangeline. The TV programme where Levon and John Simon looked at the making of the brown album is more satisfying overall.

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