* Prices may differ from that shown
It is rare that you'll see Master Director Martin Scorsese's name associated with rock music, except perhaps for his affinity for having The Rolling Stones on the soundtrack of his films. However, one of his most invigorating films - The Last Waltz - is an incredible music doc and concert film that's quite arguably the best that has ever been made, set apart by not only the exuberant musical performance of The Band, who turn in their last bow here, but also the evocative and beautiful cinematography.
Everything about this film is just great; the concert is gorgeously shot, making it appear very clear and robust for a film that's now over 30 years old, and at some point I would definitely be interested in seeing some sort of HD version. Given that The Band aren't exactly well known by modern audiences, this is a great way to get into them, as it features their best songs alongside an immense production that's got amazing lighting and superb theatricality. Scorsese's camerawork also adds a dimension to things, arguably enhancing even the experience of being at the concert itself, given how well he has planned every pass and shot.
It is indeed quite a magnificent achievement; it's one Hell of a show, and a great way for any performer to take their curtain call. It's the band at their best, doing what they love, and everything works. Perhaps the only minor error is that due to some mic errors at the concert, we can't hear the guitarist singing despite the fact he is clearly providing backing, and the bass line had to be re-recorded in post-production. Still, it detracts very little from a scintilating concert film.
In 1978 fresh from his critical and box office success of films like ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More’, Martin Scorsese decided to try his hand at something different, a rock documentary!? And so ‘The Last Waltz’ was made, charting the last concert performance of ‘The Band’ one of the most highly rated ensembles to come out of the folk country rock tradition of the 60’s and early 70’s. From the very first when you are presented with the statement ‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD’ you know that you are in for a rare musical experience. I feel that to describe this as a documentary is slightly misleading, there are interviews with all the members of the band but mostly it is a set of live performances by The Band (Rick Danko-bass, Robbie Robertson-Lead Guitar, Richard Manuel-Pianist, Garth Hudson-Keyboards, Levon Helm-Drummer) and an illustrious collection of friends and former collaborators that reads like a who’s who of 60’/70’s rock including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr and Ron Wood. The concert footage is taken at The Bands last concert in the Winterland Arena (San Francisco), which is appropriate considering this is the first venue they played as a headline group with their original vocalist Ronnie Hawkins. In a 16 year career the band have moved through and been pivotal exponents of many different musical styles from blues to folk and eventually to rock, along the way they have played with many of the most influential names in music and many of these acknowledged The Band’s contribution not only to music but to their own careers by joining them on stage for this last concert. Scorsese has made a documentary in a style that many will recognise from the fantastic spoof ‘rocku
mentary’ ‘Spinal Tap’ in fact it wouldn’t surprise me if this wasn’t the inspiration, I don’t mean that to detract from this documentary, the style was spoofed rather than the content. Scorsese chooses to approach the film in an unconventional way for the time, he dispenses with the voiceover choosing instead to uncover the personalities in the band and to tell their story through interviews he conducted himself. In contrast to this the music is highlighted in distinct concert segments (although three tracks are shot in MGM sound studio). It is shot like a prototype MTV live footage clip, the whole song is included in each clip and there is no talk-over or any unwanted cuts. From a musical standpoint I don’t think this film can be criticised, it seems that all the artists performed at their peak and trying to pick out highlights is very difficult. The first musical number appropriately is a version of ‘Who Do You Love’ energetically delivered by Ronnie Hawkins, there is also a brilliant rendition of ‘Mannish Boy’ by the legendary Muddy Waters. The characteristically deceptively laidback Dr John almost steals the show singing ‘Such A Night’ and there is even a non-musical highlight when the legendary beat figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads a short poem on stage. Amongst all the great performances the ones that stand out most for me would be Van Morrison singing ‘Caravan’ (including some manic ‘dancing’), a sublime rendition of ‘Coyote’ by Joni Mitchell, Neil Young singing ‘Helpless’ (with Joni Mitchell on backing vocals) and of course the moment when the band is joined by Bob Dylan for ‘Forever Young’. The climax of the show is a fantastic version of ‘I Shall Be Released’ featuring Dylan and many of the guest performers on stage. Not all the musical footage features special guests many of the songs a
re performed by the band alone and include almost all of their best-known hits. We are treated to ‘Up on Cripple Creek’, ‘Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘The Weight’ and ‘Stage Fright’ among others. Danko and Helm mostly share the lead vocals and Robertson doesn’t fail to disappoint with his immaculate guitar playing. Indeed it is obvious to all that the band is a very talented group of musicians that realise the importance of the event and thus have put everything in to their performances. The music, even the best know songs sound fresh and surprisingly after so many years an enthusiasm for the music is still present. The interview footage is quite different from the musical content of the film. While the music is still fresh the members of the band are not, you get an inkling of the divisions and personality clashes that would later break up longstanding friendships Robbie Robertson is clearly has the biggest ego of the group and with Richard Manuel you also feel a vulnerability that might explain what lead to his suicide in 1986. The interviews some singly and some in groups are not actually interview they are more recorded conversations that members of the group have with Scorsese. Through anecdotes reminiscence we find out a little of the groups origin as they tell us what it was like working at first in small clubs and bars and later about their years on the road. It is clear is that they achieved their success through hard work and their immense musical talent. However we don’t go in to any real depth and some of the talk looks over prepared. Just as interesting as the words they speak is their body-language, they seem tired (not just from performing) and slightly tense with each other only when they do a spontaneous jam of some old blues tune do they really seem to come together and maybe that is the way things are with many veteran bands the music is the thing that keeps them
together even though the people have drifted apart. Technically the film is excellent it is shot on 35mm, which ensures superior picture quality. The camera work itself has a different feel from most other rock documentaries and it does come across as paradoxically a spontaneous live performance that has been carefully choreographed and I feel this is done to Scorsese experience and skill as a movie director it almost feels that he set to make a feature film of a rock concert. To this end we know that some of the music notably Danko’s Bass playing was re-dubbed after filming but apart from this detail the film does seem like a true record of the concert. It is certainly a highly professional piece of filmmaking. The mix between music and talk is just about right, the chat apart from when Danko is asked about his future post the Band can be slightly shallow and some of it sounds rehearsed and all a bit ‘Rock and Roll’ featuring the obligatory groupie and party stories but this maybe due to the passage of time and a more cynical outlook by modern viewers rather than by intent. Fortunately you’re not really allowed to dwell too much on this as the musical performances are spaced evenly across the length of the film. The spoken parts of the film look and feel moody, almost all is filmed indoors using subdued lighting apart from the concert footage and there is always a feeling that we are witnessing something special that also marks an end of an era. Retrospectively we see this is true, 1978 was a year when many of the major rock bands of the 60’ and 70’s were facing up to the newer musical styles pioneered by the punk movement and later by the alternative bands. Maybe inadvertently Scorsese managed to encompass this feeling of a change about to happen in the film and you feel that the band members at an instinctive level realised that their time as a rock group had ended. With all the years that
have passed and with the deaths of two of the group (Danko most recently in 1999) in general the film takes on a rather melancholy aspect but the music is still uplifting and it still serves as a celebration of The Band’s music rather than a requiem for the band. THE DVD I bought the 25th anniversary edition of the DVD and it is worth having for the excellent sound and music quality, the 35mm film is also done justice by the format. Technical details include aspect ratio: 16:9 Wide Screen and Dolby surround stereo sound subtitles are available in Danish, Dutch, English for the hearing impaired, French, German for the hearing impaired, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish. The segmentation of the DVD is such that you can skip on to the next musical extract at will and thus it allows you to view the film as a complete concert without the documentary element. The running time 112 minutes, certificate U. Extras Included on the DVD are some extra interview footage and some more jamming sessions. A featurette ‘Revisiting the Last Waltz’ is included as well as some original trailers and promotional TV spots. The interview with Scorsese when he talks about the making of the film is well worth watching. You can also choose audio commentary by members of the Band as well as Scorsese, which do add some insight s to the making of the film and the atmosphere in which it was made. A collectible booklet is also included (at least on the 25th anniversary edition featuring some photos and assorted ramblings. ‘The Last Waltz’ along possibly with ‘Woodstock’ remains a lasting testament to a long gone era in music, which still resonates with people today. To anyone who loves the band and their unique brand of music this is a must to own to anyone who doesn’t know the band but appreciates music whether it be folk, blues, gospel, jazz or rock this will be an unexpected treat. ‘The Last Waltz’-25th anniversary collector’s edition, is available from Amazon.co.uk for £18.99 (+p&p) but it is often available at a discounted price from other online shops. Thank you for reading and rating this opinion. © Mauri 2003