Saturday, February 19, 2011

Film Review | The Last Waltz (1978)

And the Band Played On

by Thomas Delapa

Was the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band, gulp, (mostly) Canadian?

Before you start waving Old Glory or invoke the Patriot Act, consider the case of the Band, one of rock’s most influential groups and arguably the most musically virtuoso. If the Doors, the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys represented the cream of West Coast classic rock, the Band was the best from the American Heartland.

Whatever your affections, the Band’s The Last Waltz still may be the last word in rock-concert documentaries. An exuberant, star-studded record of the band’s 1976 farewell concert, it’s one rockumentary that still rolls, nearly 35 years later.

On San Francisco’s famed Winterland stage on Thanksgiving Day, the Band got together to say goodbye after 16 years as a group. Among Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, Arkansas-born Levon Helm was the lone Yank when they were first incarnated as the Hawks. It wasn't until the mid-sixties that “the Band” moniker stuck, and by then they had emerged as Bob Dylan’s backup group. Robertson (guitar) and Helm (drums) were with Dylan at his tumultuous Forest Hills, N.Y., concert in 1965, when he shocked his folkie fans by plugging in and going electric.

It was during those heady days that Dylan and the Band collaborated on one of rock’s most celebrated underground recordings—eventually released as The Basement Tapes in 1975. In 1968, the Band came out with their heralded debut album, Music from Big Pink, containing such signature tunes as “The Weight.”

As rock critic Greil Marcus once wrote, the Band “brought us in touch with the place where we all had to live.” No other U.S.-based band was so immersed in such an eclectic array of musical sources. Rockabilly, country, the blues, jazz, gospel—and classical—were among their touchstones; in retrospect, they also formed the leading edge of burgeoning “country rock,” along with Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Allman Brothers. The Band’s roots in bygone musical Americana go way back, so deep that one critic observed that they were the only rock group that might have played at Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.

And now we can be nostalgic about the Band, which has sadly unraveled since its official 1976 swan song. A long-running feud between Robertson and Helm (over songwriting credits) resulted in Helm’s absence when the group was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. Rick Danko died in 1999, while Richard Manuel took his own life in 1986.

What remains, as always, is the art and music, and fans should be grateful that director Martin Scorsese conducted The Last Waltz with a polished, first-class elegance, shooting it like a feature film with multiple 35mm cameras. Scorsese—then in the midst of his own triumphs with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull—sandwiches the 20-odd songs with brief backstage interviews with the band members, a pool table and a Confederate flag acting as dissonant backdrops. Scorsese’s own backup included a trio of star cinematographers in Michael Chapman,Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs.

What gives The Last Waltz its shake and shimmy isn’t just the songs but the cavalcade of guest stars that are practically a primer of three decades of popular music. While Neil Young, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, the Staples Singers, Muddy Waters and, yes, Neil Diamond all drop in, it’s a spangled Van Morrison who burns up Winterland, pumping up the volume on “Caravan.” To top it off, a cool Dylan strolls in for his own fancy footwork, leading the ensemble in the anthem-like “I Shall Be Released.”

The Last Waltz was released on DVD in 2002, and includes a commentary track by Scorsese and Robertson, bonus footage and a "making-of" featurette.


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