In 1976, The Band were set to split, after nearly two decades on the road. They had initially been the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, and most notably backed Bob Dylan on his infamous electric 1966 world tour. The Band would eventually stop being Dylan’s backing group and do their own thing, which included occasional performances and records with that nasal Minnesotan singer. They decided they should document it in some fashion, and eventually Martin Scorsese came on board. Scorsese had just come off the surprise success of Taxi Driver but was mainly chosen for his use of music in Mean Streets. He is one of the best directors when it comes to mixing pop/rock songs and visuals, so it was a natural fit.
The “Last Waltz” of the title occurred in San Francisco at the legendary Winterland Ballroom on November 25th, 1976. The last Sex Pistols gig with Sid Vicious also occurred there. The Grateful Dead Movie was shot there, and never mind the countless live albums recorded at Winterland, so it’s a venue that’s no stranger to filming or recording. The shoot of the concert itself was a chaotic mess, with Scorsese trying to plan it out as much as possible with the various cinematographers, who were all the leading cinematographers of the New Hollywood era. It was the ’70s, and cocaine use was rampant backstage. Neil Young sings a couple songs, but his nose was so clogged up with yeyo that Scorsese tried to rotoscope it out—but it just looks worse in this HD transfer. Dylan was also being his usual prick self and didn’t want to be filmed because he had an avant-garde concert film, Renaldo and Clara, coming out soon, and didn’t want The Last Waltz out first (they eventually reached an agreement.)
It’s remarkable that Scorsese was able pull it off, and that even somebody like me, who doesn’t particularly like The Band or Bob Dylan, can appreciate the film. It’s basically like The Avengers for baby boomers at a point, because they drag out friends and fellow musicians to do one of their songs or a song by The Band or some old R&B song. You get Dylan, obviously, you get that racist prick Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, and Van Morrison to name just a few, and then there’s the odd one out, Neil Diamond, who seemed like he had the most coke out of the lot. You also get some of their influences, like Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins.
Scorsese also rather expertly inserts some short interview segments with The Band about their history, plus a few numbers recorded on a soundstage. These include perhaps the most performance from the film “The Weight” with The Staple Sisters on backing vocals. The studio segments, and to a lesser extent the concert itself, are lit like an old Hollywood musical– that’s because the guy who lit West Wide Story did the lighting for The Last Waltz as well. The film itself became controversial within The Band because drummer/singer Levon Helm accused it of focusing too much on guitarist Robbie Robertson. That was probably fair, because Robertson was Scorsese’s coke buddy at the time, and became his music supervisor on most films.
The Last Waltz undeniably stands up as one of the key concert films of all time. There are others that I prefer, but it’s all down to personal musical taste. The Blu-Ray from Masters of Cinema is excellent: it ports over the two commentaries from the old DVD, the making-of featurettes and some outtakes. The release also includes a big fat booklet with various writing on the film old and new, and even some of Scorsese’s storyboards and sketches.