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MGM Studios DVD presents
"We started out with The Crackers. We tried to call ourselves The Honkies. Everybody kind of backed off from that one. It was too straight. So we decided just to call ourselves The Band."
DVD ReviewOkay, true story: when this movie was first released in 1978, my grandparents, God bless them, went to see it, figuring from the title that it must be some Viennese fin-de-sičcle, David Lean-like affair. I'm not sure just how long Grandma and Grandpa lasted, but the warning before the credits should have clued them in pretty quickly: "THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!"
"We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."—Robbie Robertson
After sixteen years of the rough life of the road, The Band—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson—decided to call it quits with a blowout final gig, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, at the Winterland in San Francisco, the site of their first booking together oh so many years ago. The idea snowballed, from inviting a few friends and influences to join them onstage, to a full-boat, state-of-rock-music event, and it was something that demanded a bigger audience—it was evident that the concert warranted documentation for more than the 5,000 or so who were able to attend the event. (The ticket price at the time were considered outrageous: $25. And that included dinner.) With the scope of the evening becoming clear, The Band sought out Martin Scorsese to film it. Aside from having a keen ear for music and putting it to good use in his own pictures, Scorsese worked on Woodstock, and had an affinity for the material. Scorsese of course quickly put his own stamp on the proceedings: unlike other concert films, the choice here is to concentrate almost exclusively to what's going on up on the stage. In contrast to Woodstock, the event is all up there, and unlike Gimme Shelter, there was, happily, no ancillary occurrence to draw focus. So The Last Waltz is an affectionate though hard-edged two-hour compression of that evening, the last time these guys put their songs through their paces.
The final event had ballooned into an epic production, with a full orchestra providing dance music before the show; once The Band took the stage, they stayed there for close to seven hours. And they got by with more than a little help from their friends, starting with Ronnie Hawkins doing a campy cover of Who Do You Love?, to Neil Young with a plaintive, lovely version of Helpless, to Eric Clapton and Robertson trading guitar licks, and reaching a crescendo with the appearance of Bob Dylan. Also on hand were Muddy Waters, with a bruising rendition of Mannish Boy; Joni Mitchell, singing one of her own tunes and chiming in from backstage with backup vocals on Young's Helpless; Van Morrison, in an insane, rhinestone-studded suit; and just to mix things up a bit—even the hardest-working musicians deserve a break—a couple of San Francisco poets to declaim for the audience. (Michael McClure's rendition of the introduction to The Canterbury Tales is especially peculiar—you can just imagine the audience wondering: what the hell is that?) The Band was packing it in, but oh, my, were they going out in style.
When you look at the roster of talent on hand for this event, you can't help but wonder if The Band didn't fear getting shown up at their own bon voyage. But a couple of things save them from that, and make The Band into maybe the world's best house band. One is that these guys were clearly road warriors, and were up for the challenge of blending with a dozen or so of rock's brightest lights. Another is the obvious affinity they have for some of their guests, especially Bob Dylan. (The Band backed up Dylan when he made the transition from folk to rock, and were routinely booed and pelted with rocks and garbage by Dylan fans thinking that their man had betrayed them and his folk roots; if The Band were not the co-conspirators, they were at least the enablers.) But the set list might be the most crucial element to this. The Band is given plenty of opportunity to demonstrate what a finely honed, gifted set of musicians they are, and the guests' songs are well chosen to blend with the evening, and don't have a greatest hits feel to them. The best example of this may be Neil Diamond, who at first glance seems out of place here—he's supposed to represent the Brill Building, the Tin Pan Alley Tradition—but he sings a terrific song, Dry Your Eyes, that comes from an album produced by Robertson. It's a tribute to how well everything meshes that the representatives of the two most popular bands of the 1960s, Ringo Starr and Ron Wood, appear only with the group in the finale (Dylan's I Shall Be Released), almost as an afterthought. (Okay, it's fair to say that that might have been different if instead it were John Lennon and Keith Richards.)
Even if the music is foreign to you or long before your time, there's much here to admire, especially in Scorsese's filmmaking. He shines especially in the three numbers that were shot after the event; The Band wanted to round out their acknowledgments of their influences, and hence on an MGM soundstage, they shot The Weight with The Staples, a nod in the direction of gospel, and Evangeline with Emmylou Harris, recognizing their debt to country music. The third number, Theme from The Last Waltz, is an instrumental that serves as sort of an elegy for the band and the time, and plays over the closing credits; it's done in one beautiful moving crane shot, and deserves its place alongside the shot of La Motta leaving his dressing room and going into the ring in Raging Bull, or the long tracking shot of Henry and Karen entering the Copa in GoodFellas. (There are other little riffs for Scorsese completists, like the opening—it's a couple of the musicians shooting pool, and serves almost as a first sketch for some of the shots in The Color of Money.) Made just before the explosion of cable television, in many respects these studio sequences are the crucial link between the old MGM musicals and MTV.
The Last Waltz is of course principally a concert movie, but it's loosely strung together with interview footage of the members of The Band, shot at their Malibu retreat a few months after the concert. Robertson dominates, but they all get some screen time; it's also obvious here that Scorsese has gone to school on the great documentarians of the 1960s, like the Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, and isn't reluctant to point up the artifice of the interview process. (Scorsese himself appears on screen, and almost glories in showing his missteps. At one point, unhappy with how his answer has started, Robertson says to Scorsese: "Ask me that again.")
Maybe this is a little bit of dirty pool, but I'd be remiss if I didn't point out how wickedly (and yes, sometimes unfairly) some of this movie is skewered in This Is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner as Marty Di Bergi is an obvious comic stand-in for Scorsese, and while the members of The Band are nowhere near as dopey as Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls, some of their interview footage demonstrates that while their sentiments are heartfelt, they weren't necessarily the most articulate bunch.
This also means that some questions don't really get answered—principally, the reasons given for The Band hanging it up are pretty vague, and you can't help but wonder if all five members were in accord. (Robertson gets most of the screen time—he's the producer of the movie, too—but I suppose the internal workings of a band are unknowable to everyone but its members.) Danko and Manuel have since died, as have some of the other participants that night; looking back on this with that knowledge, this fine concert film has even more poignancy.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: There are occasional specks on the print, but it looks as if these are flaws in the source material, not in the transfer. The circumstances of the shoot were frequently arduous, but some of the best cinematographers working in the industry were manning the cameras—aside from frequent Scorsese collaborator Michael Chapman as director of photography (his credits include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), also working was Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter) and Laszlo Kovacs (Paper Moon, Shampoo)—and the verité style means that sometimes the focus and framing aren't perfect, but that's what comes with covering a live event. Color and black levels are deep, rich and consistent, on this, the first concert film shot in 35 millimeter.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: Robertson supervised the mixing of the soundtrack for DVD, and his care shows. (Special thanks are given to billionaire and rock fan Paul Allen, so it's a fair bet that no expense was spared on this one.) The 5.1 surround mix is especially lush and makes ample use of the rear channels, though if you're set up only with two speakers, the 2.0 track will be more than serviceable. Crank it up!
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 34 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Deleted Scenes
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese (first track); Jay Cocks, Greil Marcus, Jonathan Taplin, Steven Prince, Irwin Winkler, Levon Helm, John Simon, Ronnie Hawkins, Garth Hudson, Dr. John, Michael Chapman, Mavis Staples, Mardik Martin (second track)
The hits just keep on coming. The first commentary track is with Robertson and Scorsese, featuring more of the former than the latter; the real disappointment here is that they weren't together, as they display an obvious affection and respect for one another. Robertson is especially winning, talking about himself as a frustrated filmmaker, and Scorsese as a frustrated musician, so they understand one another; and much of the making of the film was, aside from lots of hard work and talent, the result of some happy accidents. (For instance, all the lights save one blew out during Mystery Train, so the soloist, Paul Butterfield, is alone, bathed in a spotlight. It's a mistake that turned into a pretty cool effect.) It's tough to tell if Scorsese is actually watching the film, or just discussing the experience of making it; it falls chronologically between New York, New York and Raging Bull, and there's an obvious continuity running through these movies. The accompanying feature, Revisiting The Last Waltz (22m:29s), covers much of the same ground, in interviews with Scorsese and Robertson. Especially noteworthy is Scorsese saying that "each song was a round in a prizefight," just as he was gearing up for Raging Bull.
"You don't get Ray Charles up at 7:30 in the morning to sing Hallelujah, I Love Her So."—Martin Scorsese
There are almost as many people on the second commentary track as there were onstage for the finale, and their observations have been shrewdly edited together. (The track comes with a warning about "strong language," and there's a subtitle option, to identify which of the many participants is talking.) Jay Cocks, a frequent Scorsese collaborator (he shared credit on the script for The Age of Innocence) and Time Magazine music critic, offers some keen insights (comparing this to Visconti's The Leopard, for instance), as does Greil Marcus, one of the great rock writers. Marcus is especially good on situating The Band in time and place, talking about how they're more rhythm (i.e. white musicians) than blues (black musicians). Jonathan Taplin, the executive producer, displays giddy enthusiasm: when he heard about the concert, he says his response was: "Okay, this is going to be very cool." Ronnie Hawkins is a stitch—The Band came together as a backup group for him, and he feels a little out of his league with the heavy hitters on the roster, but that's all right with him: "I didn't want that big-time sh**, because I couldn't kiss everybody's a**." Dr. John offers his skewed take on the song he performs ("Personably, I hate this song"), and director of photography Michael Chapman is both passionate about his craft and eager not to offend ("Can I say that? Pain in the a**?"). There are lots of great, random observations—Van Morrison as a "half-homicidal leprechaun," The Band as "the world's greatest rock band that could yodel." Perhaps funniest of all is Irwin Winkler, Scorsese's producer on New York, New York, who learned from the New York Times that his director was moonlighting in San Francisco on some concert film. "To this day," he says about The Last Waltz, "I've never seen the film."
There are so many stills in the photo gallery that it's broken down into four chapters: The Concert (featuring posters and shots of the pre-show turkey dinner), The Studio Shoots, The NYC Premiere (among those in attendance: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Jake La Motta, James Taylor and Carly Simon, and Scorsese's parents), and Posters & Lobby Cards. (Best detail is the Spanish-language title for the picture: El Ultimo Rock.) The deleted scene (12m:18s) is a jam session that preceded The Band's final song; like the musicians and the audience, after a while the cameras just gave out from exhaustion, and though the music continues on the soundtrack, the picture just goes kablooey.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsNearly twenty-five years after the fact, The Last Waltz remains the benchmark for concert movies, and rightly so. If you're coming to it to see arguably America's best director at work, or to see the elegiac farewell to a time in rock and roll, or if you're just coming to hear the music, you'll be thankful for the blood and sweat that went into this project back in the day, and the care that was evidently taken in bringing it to DVD. Heed the movie's advice: play it loud, and often.
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