Saturday, August 28, 2010

Unfinished Notes From an Abandoned Book: The Weight (2009)

The Band in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978).

A couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book called The Weight. It was about Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978), his concert documentary about The Band's farewell Thanksgiving concert on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco. My thought was to send a proposal and a sample chapter to the British Film Institute for their annual chapbook publications on key films. Having just done a CBC Radio documentary on The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink (1968), I was primed to delve into the air of melancholy that lay beneath the spirit of celebration that Scorsese caught while shooting that extraordinary concert. But I decided to abandon the project when there didn't seem to be any interest from publishers. However, I came across some of the notes I'd written in preparation for The Weight which, upon re-reading them, looked apt for a posting.  Kevin Courrier

"...[T]ime is an affliction. I heard it once in a song. Since we use time to measure our life experience, its worth or its waste, it afflicts us in a variety of ways. As young men and women, we use time to look ahead and see possibility before us; from an older perspective, we look back on a life lived happily, or worse, of lost possibility. Time is an affliction because it always reminds us of how we measure our successes and failures. But maybe its worse when we get older. There is more time behind us than ahead of us..."

Rick Danko
"In 2008, while re-watching Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary on The Band's farewell concert on American Thanksgiving in 1976, I can now see a certain sadness in the picture that wasn't apparent in the theatre upon its premiere. At that time, hailed as the greatest rock documentary of all-time, the film created a spirit that was celebratory. Band co-founder Robbie Robertson even called it 'a celebration.' Martin Scorsese, who was agonizing over the production of his musical New York, New York, described the opportunity to make this movie as a 'once in a lifetime' chance. But all involved knew they were engaged in something being described as 'the end of an era.' But that isn't what invokes the sadness, not even now when watching the movie. This talking about 'the end of an era' sounds too pat, too obvious a cliché, as if reaching for a sound bite to sum everything up, to put everything in its place, to give it caché. The sadness didn't come from the number of deaths to follow the concert, either; people who, as Greil Marcus describes in the DVD commentary, 'didn't get out of this world alive.' (Yet the list is pretty substantial: from The Band, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko are now gone, others include Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield.) Instead you feel strangely wistful watching the younger, spry and lanky bassist Rick Danko bopping up and down (as a friend once told me) like Robert de Niro's out-of-control Johnny Boy in Scorsese's Mean Streets (1974). Seeing his happy abandon, even when singing a tale of fear like 'Stage Fright,' today has a way of reminding you of what he would become in later years: bloated by abuse and neglect and ending in heart failure. He'd end up looking like a genial version of the defeated Jake LaMotta in Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980)."

Richard Manuel
"Richard Manuel, with his shy devil's grin behind the piano, tells us in 'The Shape I'm In' that 'out of nine lives, I've spent seven.' He looks like he was already working on the ninth. All of those moments in The Last Waltz create an ache as simultaneously as they deliver pleasure. The deeper melancholy in this picture though isn't found in the ways you're moved, it's in what you can't truly anticipate. For instance, in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' – the song Robbie Robertson wrote about the defeated South after the American Civil War and sung by the group's sole southerner, drummer Levon Helm – there was a long history of this tune moving people to tears. Even those who shared no true sympathy with the Confederacy could not resist the equally true emotional weight of the tale of Virgil Cane, a man who looks at the land he inhabits and sees the failure he's left to inherit. Joan Baez once attempted to erase that power by changing the lyrics to suit her more leftist Northern sensibility, but the song was too strong. It escaped her anyway.

Levon Helm
To a degree, until The Last Waltz, the song had escaped its singer as well. The pain in 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' was too close a fit for Levon, and he had always sung it with a pathos that was obvious, and with its sentiment all too clear, like hearing Paul Robeson sing 'No More Auction Block.' But, on this evening, Levon didn't just convey the pain, but also the anger that goes with it. The defeated South wasn't a land of sadness, there was a rage, too, a rage that one heard a century later in the Civil Rights battles that ultimately desegregated the South. Sometimes you heard it in the country blues that would ultimately find a home in the urban enclaves of Chicago, where Muddy Waters would proclaim (as he does in The Last Waltz) in "Mannish Boy" that 'I'm a man-child.' But Levon's rage at the loss of identity, the giving into a larger identity of what America was about to become after the Civil War, had finally uncorked the power and true compassion that this song always contained."

"All of these moments in the film, and there are many more, have a way of deepening with time, where time's affliction provides bolder hindsight. But the deeper melancholy, for me, comes with a performance of 'The Weight,' the parable that bonded people to The Band back in 1968. The song is about a search for community, a quest for comfort, a place to find comradeship and to set down roots, to lessen the burden of what the singer is carrying, but with no guarantee of being relieved of it. The key to this song is that there are many singers present in the performance – not just one – just as there is a cast of characters in 'The Weight' who deepen the riddle. The burden of the story it tells is carried by many and refused by all.

In The Last Waltz, we don't see The Band doing 'The Weight' onstage in front of an audience, but rather, on a sound stage contrived to give the performance a special imaginary setting. Performing with The Band is The Staple Singers, a black gospel group, a family headed by Pop Staples and his daughters, who had been a huge influence on the call-and-response style The Band used in 'The Weight' (as on Big Pink's 'We Can Talk'). In this performance, 'The Weight' acts out the dream of an integrated country. With nothing pious in the performance, a bolder consideration of America is set forth in this stirring rendition, perhaps even an anticipation of the hopes stirred by the candidacy of Barack Obama in 2008. The Band looks into the American character with a hungry desire to bond with its aspirations, and to test the loyalty and obligations of those they meet in the song's journey. But they also know (being mostly Canadians) they are outsiders to the country's legacy of slavery and brutality. In 'The Weight,' they are dreaming of a country that is too often crippled by the guilt, the horrors - and the weight - carried by its own citizens. Yet The Band and The Staple Singers dream out its possibilities and ideals anyway. They bond with The Staples knowing that, even as a rock and roll group, they will soon be breaking up, unable to sustain their own bonds of friendship, bonds that once indelibly tied them together and left them unable to carry the weight of their own possibilities..."

"....[T]he problems Martin Scorsese was experiencing on his period-musical New York, New York (1977) were obvious. He was depicting an era – the post-war period – of his parents and he reflected that time in the deliberate style of Vincente Minnelli, even casting his daughter, Liza, in it. But Scorsese got caught up in his fetish for old movies. His true heart was in the more contemporary be-bop nervousness of De Niro's sax playing Jimmy Doyle, the guy looking ahead, looking past the Big Bands into something new, exciting and experimental. The two parts of the movie never do mesh. De Niro keeps hitting his head against the wall of Hollywood classicism in the same way he would later literally bang his head against a wall as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. But Scorsese's classicism finds a better home in The Last Waltz where he decorates a dilapidated rock palace in the style of another Italian director, Luciano Visconti. In a sense, the tone of The Band's final concert, their final show with this line-up of musicians, would recall Burt Lancaster's Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Visconti's The Leopard (1963). Visconti's tragic, yet loving view of the changing of the guard concludes at a wedding where the Prince faces his own mortality while watching the new order being established in his expedient nephew's wedding. Critic Roger Ebert described the wedding ball aptly as 'a last glorious celebration of the dying age; Visconti cast members of noble old Sicilian families as the guests, and in their faces, we see a history that cannot be acted, only embodied. The orchestra plays Verdi. The young people dance on and on, and the older people watch carefully and gauge the futures market in romances and liaisons.' The future of the rock world, the world The Band departed from in 1976, would also turn their idea of community into a good place to hide."

"It's that fear of impending retreat that inhabits The Last Waltz, whose opening credits feature a young couple performing a waltz, their wedding ritual, while the crowd (after a five hour concert) refuses to let The Band go home. 'You're still here?' Robbie Robertson asks the audience at the end of the concert (but near the beginning of the movie), looking surprised to find anybody out there after the group had spent every ounce of all they had to give. It was simple. The audience just couldn't let go of what they already saw starting to pass. So the group gave them Marvin Gaye's 'Don't Do It,' a plea as hard and as soulful as John Lennon had once delivered in 'Don't Let Me Down,' just when The Beatles were about to pass into history. 'Don'tcha break my heart,' Levon cries out before the group answers, with a collective smile, 'My biggest mistake was lovin' you too much.' Then, with a wave, they were gone."

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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