by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: The Band, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In 1976, American rockers The Band performed their last concert ever with an unforgettable guest list. Director Martin Scorsese filmed it, and the rest is history.
I mean, 16 years on the road, the numbers start to scare ya. I mean, I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.
– Robbie Robertson, vocals and lead guitar, The Band
Martin Scorsese’s film of The Last Waltz, the Band’s epic final concert in 1976, is a curious exploration of the highs and lows of what it means to be a rock star. Or not just a rock star, but one of the stars of a touring band, one of those perpetually traveling bands like The Grateful Dead or Phish or, God help us, The Rolling Stones. In their performances, you can clearly see the heedless joy with which every musician plays their part, whether it’s a rockin’ guitar solo or a yell during the refrain or a keyboardist getting lost in his own world for a minute or two. There are smiles and grins and humble bows to the cheering audience in the dark.
But Scorsese makes an important choice with The Last Waltz not to show just the highs of live performance. With intercut interviews, filmed some months after the concert itself, we get quiet, introspective feedback from band members who clearly love performing, but who recognize just how much touring has taken from them. They have no desire to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who paid the ultimate price for fame. “You can press your luck,” says Robbie Robertson at one point. “The road has taken a lot of great ones. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. Janis. Jimi Hendrix. Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.” Here is a man who has decided it’s time to end the show before it jumps the ultimate shark.
In this way, The Last Waltz becomes more than just a concert film or a pretentious exercise in cinéma verité. It clearly presents both sides and asks the viewer: how much would you give to achieve the fame and fortune of a rock star? Certainly, the highs are deliriously addictive. But in their interviews, members of The Band seem diffident or downright dismissive of their fame and fortune. One band member is happier when they’re OUT of the spotlight. “And as soon as company came, of course, you know, we’d start having fun. And you know what happens when you have too much fun.”
But in focusing on their interviews, I don’t want to give the impression that The Last Waltz is anything but entertaining from beginning to end. Let’s be honest: the concert footage is what’s going to amaze you at the outset.
Scorsese sets the tone right at the start with a title card in huge letters: THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD. The ensuing concert footage proves his point. Especially on the newest Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, the music coming out of the speakers is crisp and clean and begs to be blasted. One number in particular, “Mystery Train”, is a pounding rockabilly song that felt and sounded most like I was really there. The other guest performers do their part. Muddy Waters gives a lesson on where the blues came from, putting pretenders to shame. Joni Mitchell brings a more delicate touch with a heartfelt ballad about a wanderer who is imprisoned by the white lines on the road. Van Morrison, whom I’ve never seen in any concert footage anywhere else, gives a damn good impression of Joe Cocker in his tight flared bellbottoms and low-cut T-shirt over his ample stomach – an image I would never have connected to Morrison.
I could go on, but you get the picture. On the basis of the music and the performances alone, The Last Waltz is easily in my top three favorite concert films of all time, with first and second place rounded out by Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter, respectively. (For the record, I have never really cared for Woodstock…go figure.) Combine that stirring music with the inside information from the interviews, and you’ve got a movie that captures a moment in time, a so-called “end of an era.” Punk and disco are right around the corner. Did The Band know it? Watching it this time around, I couldn’t help but think of the ending of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, with the gang walking to their certain doom because the world is changing, and they know they can’t change with it. The Last Waltz isn’t quite that gloomy, of course. But the sentiment is there.