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.
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.
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.
Categories: Film Reviews