Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson at the Cannes Film Festival, 1978
THE LAST WALTZ B+
USA (117 mi) 1978 d: Martin Scorsese
USA (117 mi) 1978 d: Martin Scorsese
We wanted it to be more than a final concert. We wanted it to be a celebration.
Harken back to Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, an old non-descript box building that was formerly an ice-skating rink, used by legendary 60’s promoter Bill Graham as a larger venue for rock ‘n’ roll acts than his smaller Fillmore Auditorium (which was also an ice-skating rink, ironically), as it had a seating capacity of 5400, though it’s clear they regularly squeezed more customers in there. It was the end of an era, as the dreams and hopes of the 60’s ushering in a new social agenda had been thoroughly squashed by a repressive law and order campaign by Nixon, including an ignoble resignation to avoid impeachment from a flood of lies uncovered by the Watergate investigation, made even worse by Ford’s subsequent pardoning of the former President, leaving a nation thoroughly wounded and divided. What once was, was no more, as America had never recovered from the scars of assassinations, racial turmoil, and the Vietnam War, further exacerbated by the exposure of the COINTELPRO dirty tricks campaign by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover to target, smear, and eradicate what they deemed to be political subversives, which included surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting anti-Vietnam organizations, feminist groups, but also Civil Rights groups, including Martin Luther King and the Black Panther Party, as all were viewed as a threat to the country. This kind of political overreach was unprecedented, creating an inherent distrust of government and their motives, where the innocence and idealism of the 60’s seemed like a long forgotten dream, replaced by a new cynicism. Rock ‘n’ roll films played a part of this history, particularly an elongated but ebullient WOODSTOCK (1970), with Martin Scorsese working as an assistant director and editor, and its alter-ego Altamont, a deadly and more downbeat experience documented so brilliantly by the Maysles in Gimme Shelter (1970). The eclectic rock group The Band, comprised of four Canadians and one American, never developed the notoriety of the big ticket items, like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, or Dylan, groups with a megastar status that could sell out large venues. Instead the Band, first known as the Hawks, played a combination of what might be called white soul music, a mixture of blues, rockabilly, soul, gospel, and country, famous for having no major stars, developing a notoriety as being Dylan’s back-up band in the mid 60’s, and tended to play in smaller, more intimate arenas, accentuating their versatile musicianship, as they moved around a lot onstage playing different instruments, like a symphonic orchestra. However, despite near unanimous critical claims that this is the greatest concert film ever, viewers may discover that to be more hype and exaggeration, much of it debunked by Levon Helm’s 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, suggesting Scorsese was overly obsessed with Robbie Robertson, at the expense of ignoring the other members of the band, accusing Robertson of conspiring with record companies to steal songwriting credits from other members of the Band, calling it “The biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to The Band,” because no one but Robertson received any royalties from home video sales. In the end, this is a good but not a great film.
The Band had no connection to the Bay area, and rarely played there, but Winterland was the first time when the group played together as “The Band,” playing on the road together for sixteen years after that, with lead guitarist Robbie Robertson calling it quits, claiming it’s too high-risk, naming off the infamous rock stars who died young, like Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Otis Redding, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, and the list goes on, 'The 27 Club:' Famous musicians who died at age 27 - NY Daily News, largely from the excess and craziness that results from life on the road. The mood of the country had turned much darker, Richard Manuel, seriously injured in a boating accident earlier in the year, was already succumbing to alcoholism (he would later commit suicide while on tour in 1986), while he, Levon Helm, and Richard Danko (who died of heart failure in 1999, largely from years of alcoholism and drug addiction), were getting involved with harder drugs, including heroin, making them all more erratic collaborators, while Robertson stayed mostly clean, taking on the role of organizing and managing the group, as no one else wanted to do it, which became a burden. So the group decided to come full circle and return to Winterland one more time for their final farewell concert, where no announcement was made ahead of time about what other musicians might be there, as the ads simply said, “Bill Graham presents The Last Waltz, the Band, and Friends,” though at the last minute bigger names were leaked to the press, like Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, among others. Graham decided to ask the astronomical price of $25 a ticket, which was unheard of, as tickets in those days were closer to $5, but in order to justify the value, the concert was preceded by a turkey dinner for all 5400 customers with all the fixings, 6600 pounds of turkey, 18 cases of cranberries, 500 pounds of cranberry sauce, 90 gallons of sauce made from the drippings, 2000 pounds of peeled yams, 800 pounds of mincemeat, 6000 rolls, 400 gallons of apple cider, 400 pounds of fresh salmon for non-turkey eaters, and 400 pounds of pumpkin pie, bringing in the 38-piece Berkeley Promenade Orchestra to perform, with ballroom dancing, including three teams of professional ballroom dancers under the actual chandeliers used in GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), along with wooden pillars and props borrowed from the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco Opera. While none of this is included in the film, it was all part of the experience. Additionally, back stage was a treasure trove of cocaine and other drugs, with Scorsese acknowledging his own heavy cocaine use, with a giant white gob of cocaine visibly seen hanging out of the nose of Neil Young while performing that had to later be edited out.
Enter Martin Scorsese, who was currently working on his underappreciated revisionist Old Hollywood musical, New York, New York (1977), but got a call from Jonathan Tapin, one of the producers of Mean Streets (1973) who had also been a tour manager with the Band, informing him of this planned final concert, which Scorsese could simply not ignore, never mentioning it to the producers of the film he was supposedly working on, making most of the arrangements through Robbie Robertson, who has subsequently contributed music to several Scorsese films, choosing to do the shoot with seven continuously running 35mm cameras, something that had never been done before, with a distinct possibility that they could overheat, as 35-millimeter Panavision cameras weren’t designed to run continuously for six hours, filming three songs a few months later on an MGM soundstage, including crane shots, which was a more controlled movie environment that Scorsese was used to. Using the top cinematographers in the business, including László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman, and Freddie Schuler, every camera was synchronized to two 24-track recording machines, with one roving handheld camera, where concrete had been poured into the ice-rink underneath the floor to stabilize three solid camera mounts, including a tower at the back of the venue for wide-angle shots, with Scorsese commenting afterwards that he recalls “constantly seeing sync motors being carried away like bodies.” So for all practical purposes, due to this advance preparation, this was the most lusciously beautiful concert ever filmed. Ironically, the film opens with the ending, as the group is seen playing their final encore, the last song the group would actually play together, with the show ending at 2:15 am as the opening credits roll, before reverting back to the 9 pm start time. Reportedly, all still photographers were to arrive at 5 pm to take their positions, standing on their feet for hours under hot lights before the show actually began, with one of the photographers handing out bottled soda drinks for all of them around 7:30, which turned out to be laced with LSD. When they speak of “an end of an era,” this unexpected circumstance is what they’re referring to, as this kind of thing simply doesn’t happen anymore. But that’s San Francisco. Part of being on the road. Interspersed between performances are brief snippets in more casual moments with the band, with Scorsese often interviewing them, revealing a bit of history about themselves and the group, with Robertson often cutting off other band members to make sure he gets the final word. After a few of their own songs, the first guest onstage is Ronnie Hawkins, who gave the group their start, telling them they wouldn’t make much money, but they’ll “get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” It’s a joyous reunion, with Hawkins doing a Bo Diddley song, The Band & Ronnie Hawkins - Who Do You Love LIVE HD ... - YouTube (4:02), made famous in the Bay area by a 25-minute Quicksilver Messenger Service rendition live at the Fillmore in 1969 that took an entire side of a record album, often described as the definitive live recording of a 60’s acid-laced, San Francisco psychedelic-ballroom experience, which can be heard here, Quicksilver Messenger Service - Who Do You Love - Happy Trails 1969 (25:14).
After a brief appearance by San Francisco Beat poet Michael McClure reading the Prologue to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English language, they brought out Dr. John, decked out in a beret, sunglasses, and a purple polka dot suit with sparkles singing “Such a Night,” Dr. John - Such a Night (The Last Waltz) - YouTube (3:36), singing about “Sweet confusion…under the moonlight,” followed by Neil Young in his shaggy dog period singing “Helpless,” The Band & Neil Young - Helpless (HD) - YouTube (5:35) with an uncredited Joni Mitchell doing harmonics from the dark shadows of the back, feeling very much like a Canadian invasion. Part of the allure of concerts from this period is the epic use of drugs, where it’s surprising bands could perform as well as they did under the influence, producing such accomplished music. The color and lighting are exquisite, particularly cleaned up in HD. The first studio performance comes as a big surprise, particularly the entry of that deep soulful voice of Mavis Staples joining the Band for “The Weight,” The Band - The Weight (with The Staples) (HD) - YouTube (4:35), adding a bit of gospel to the earthy smokiness of Levon Helm’s bluesy Arkansas drawl, one of the group’s best hidden attributes, as he is arguably the greatest singing drummer ever, shot in a set saturated in red and smoke, where you can tell the members of the band have slightly different hair styles than before. Helm takes center stage with his passionate Civil War ballad backed by a horn section that is a story in itself, The Band - The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [HD ... - YouTube (4:19), one of the highpoints of the film, with the utterly awesome Helm as Johnny Reb providing one of his best recorded performances. What is there to say about Neil Diamond except, what on earth is he doing in this film? It looks like he just flew in from his Las Vegas lounge act, still dressed in his powder blue leisure suit, sticking out like a sore thumb. In one of the few appearance by Richard Manuel, in response to a question Scorsese asks about women on the road, he says very matter-of-factly, “I love ‘em. That’s probably why we’ve been on the road.” As we watch Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, and Emmy Lou Harris, reconfirming she has one of the greatest voices ever, and can sing with anyone, the icing on the cake is Muddy Waters, at the time a living legend, hammering out “Mannish Boy,” The Band & Muddy Waters - Mannish Boy LIVE HD San ... - YouTube (4:33). Enter Eric Clapton with Eric Clapton ft. The Band - Further On Up the Road [HD] - YouTube (5:08), doing back and forth riffs with Robbie Robertson, especially after his guitar strap breaks, before regaining his mastery over the guitar, doing an early blues roll that sounds almost like slow jazz, where it’s nice to see the normally expressionless face of Clapton offer a hint of a smile, with Levon Helm slapping his hand afterwards. Van Morrison goes overboard in his purple jump suit with sparkles, doing a somewhat drunken rendition of “Caravan,” The Band & Van Morrison - Caravan LIVE HD San Francisco - YouTube (5:02), a true showman however, including a few kicks at the end. Helm is finally tracked down by Scorsese in a bar, with a pool game going on in the background, with Helm describing the musical giants that passed through Memphis, Carl Perkins Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley, or the after hours, late night traveling acts that passed through the southern region in tent shows where he grew up, including black blues groups like Wolcott’s Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, “Bluegrass or country music, if it comes down to that area and mixes with the rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music,” with Scorsese asking “What’s it called then?” Helm answers with that knowing smile, “Rock ‘n’ roll.”
While not mentioned in the film, Dylan arrived about fifteen minutes before he was scheduled to go on, announcing he would not be in the film, as he didn’t want competing footage with his own touring Rolling Thunder Review which was being filmed for his upcoming 4-hour concert film, RENALDO & CLARA (1978), which was a total disaster that very few people have ever seen. Scorsese, already high on coke, appropriately went berserk, wondering how can you do a farewell concert film on the Band and not include Bob Dylan. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966 near his home in Woodstock, New York, his recovery was largely aided by these musicians as they recorded the historic Basement Tapes in 1967, having been his back-up band on tour prior to the accident. With the intervention of promoter Bill Graham, Dylan agreed to be filmed only for his last two songs, with the cameras turned away from the stage for his earlier numbers to guarantee no accidental filming. Appearing onstage in a giant white hat and a purple and white polka dot shirt, Dylan was the final guest performer, singing a slowed down rock anthem, The Band - Forever Young - YouTube (4:32), that by the end feels dreary and melancholic, with Dylan actually appearing bored before he kicks it into another gear with The Band & Bob Dylan - Baby Let Me Follow You Down (HD) - YouTube (3:12), an up tempo blues romp that feels more inspired, feeling exactly like vintage road Dylan. Everyone gathers back onstage for the final number, including Ringo and Ronnie Wood, singing one of Dylan’s most iconic songs, THE BAND - I Shall Be Released (Bob Dylan, Neil Young ... - YouTube (4:53), bringing the show to a rousing, near reverent emotional close. The film oddly ends in a studio transition with the sound of an organ, perhaps masterminded by Garth Hudson, with his hair continually flying out of place throughout the film, resembling a B-movie mad doctor, but here it sounds like a slow waltz played by the group, resembling roller-skating music, like something you might have heard on the decks of the Titanic, as couples waltz around the stage in various configurations, bringing on the closing credits. While the guest list is impressive, by no means is this the greatest concert film, though it may be the most beautifully filmed, but it is hindered by the appearance of Neil Diamond, who would have been equally out of place at Woodstock, with his inclusion making little sense (he had business connections with Robbie Robertson). And just the way it’s filmed, a stage only view, ignoring the audience, with nearly every number interrupted with backstage banter, gives it an odd stop and start flow that some may find uniquely different, while others may find the constant breakaways disrupt any established rhythm. Also, for what it’s worth, there are no extended improvisatory numbers, for instance on “Chest Fever” The Band - Chest Fever (5:02), instead it resembles a punk style with songs of shorter duration, featuring a group that is permanently on the road and on the edge of stardom without ever getting there. Among the best, WOODSTOCK (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970) come to mind, offering more legendary stage performances, also D.A. Pennebaker’s DON’T LOOK BACK (1967), a behind-the-scenes exposé of Bob Dylan’s public persona, with the camera serving as a fly on the wall observer of his 1965 tour of England, while the sublime Jonathan Demme’s STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) may ultimately be the best, filled with the off-kilter, poetic interpretations of Talking Heads who always seemed slightly out of the mainstream, with David Byrne’s energetic synthesis of music and imagery, capturing what feels like a spontaneous artistic vision that still stands alone as a concert film. This is, however, one of the greatest Thanksgiving movies.