Monday, March 28, 2022

New on Criterion: The Last Waltz (1978)

The Band on stage in The Last Waltz (1978)

In the forty-four years since Martin Scorsese released The Last Waltz, his film of The Band’s final concert, at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, the movie hasn’t lost any of its visceral excitement, both as a piece of filmmaking and as a keepsake of one of the signal events in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the greatest concert movie ever made. (The other contenders, in my view, would be Bert Stern’s 1959 Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a chronicle of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which inspired Scorsese; Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense; and Scorsese’s one-of-a-kind 2019 Rolling Thunder Revue, which casts a backward glance at the all-star show, headed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, that circled the continent in 1975 and 1976.) The new Criterion disc of The Last Waltz is as beautiful to look at as the film was in theatres in 1978. The veteran Hollywood production designer Boris Leven, borrowing the San Francisco Opera’s set for La Traviata and framing it with a trio of chandeliers, transformed Winterland into something that looks like a remnant of the Romantic era, and Michael Chapman, who had worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver, lit it, while some of the most talented cinematographers in America (Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, David Myers, Bobby Byrne, Michael Watkins and Hiro Narita) manned the other six cameras covering the spectacle. It was the first concert film with a shooting script, which Scorsese had drawn up; the stories about the filming, where his meticulous planning met the inevitable challenges and accidents of a once-in-a-lifetime event that had to be captured spontaneously, are sometimes funny and always thrilling. (You won’t want to skip the extras on the Criterion disc, which include two audio commentaries, a 1978 Canadian television interview with Scorsese and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, a twenty-fifth-anniversary doc about the making of the movie, and a supremely articulate new interview with Scorsese conducted by film critic David Fear. There’s also a single outtake, a twelve-minute jam session that occurred at the end of the concert and is the only surviving piece of archival footage.)

The choice of a nineteenth-century visual aesthetic for the backdrop to a rock concert seems strangely apt for the farewell performance of The Band, who were unlike any popular musicians of their uniquely rich musical era. Except for Levon Helm, the drummer, who hailed from West Helena, Arkansas, near Memphis, the musicians – Robertson (who played lead guitar and wrote most of the songs), Rick Danko (bass), Richard Manuel (piano and keyboards) and Garth Hudson (organ, in addition to accordion, synthesizers and sax) – were Canadian. Yet their songs feel quintessentially American; some of them are fresh modern reimaginings of subject matter from the stores of American history and culture, most famously “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” but also the labor song about farmers “King Harvest” and the carnival anthem “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show.” (One of the most poignant ballads captures a moment where Canadian and American history overlap: “Acadian Driftwood,” about the Francophones driven over the border after the English won the war for Canada against France.) Their approach to the American past is much like Robert Altman’s in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, where the westerners are somehow both ghosts from a long-gone time and characters we recognize from the hippie time when they were created. And I love The Band’s music in the same way I love Altman’s movie. 

Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson in The Last Waltz.

Though one can argue that the best rock ‘n’ roll always synthesizes the influences of blues, jazz and folk, The Band’s output seems to do so in an unusually profound and layered way. The songs are narratives, often quirky ones, like folk and blues tunes. The interviews with the five musicians that Scorsese intercut with the musical numbers focus not only on the Band’s history – how they began as The Hawks, back-up for country rocker Ronnie Hawkins, before they became Bob Dylan’s back-up band and finally settled down in a communal house with a studio in Woodstock, New York, where they put out Music from Big Pink in 1968 and The Band in 1969 – but also on their musical influences. (Robbie tells a wonderful story about the group’s visiting blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson in Memphis close to the end of his life.) And the Winterland concert was a celebration both of The Band’s sixteen years together and of those influences and musical friendships. Ronnie Hawkins shows up, and Bob Dylan; Muddy Waters, carrying with him the aura of the blues, and Paul Butterfield, whose work melds the blues with rock ‘n’ roll; Neil Diamond, one of the pop songwriters who took up residence in the Brill Building in Manhattan and transformed Tin Pan Alley, the one-time capital of show music; and Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and two fellow Canadians, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Silhouetted behind a curtain, Mitchell sings eerie back-up for Young’s melancholy ballad “Helpless,” set in a lonely north Ontario town. Even the structure of the movie reflects the theme of legacy and continuum. It begins with the end of the concert: The Band, who were relaxing backstage when the producer, Bill Graham, popped in his head to tell them that no one in the audience had gone home, straggle back onstage to deliver a single encore, “Don’t Do It.” Only then do we see how the show kicked off, with “Up on Cripple Creek.”

One of The Band’s unorthodox qualities is its egalitarian handling of the vocals. Everyone in the group sings except for Hudson, and three of them – Helm, Danko and Manuel – share lead vocalist responsibilities, each offering up a distinctive lyrical quality. (Robertson always sings back-up.) Helm’s  country-tinged voice, raucous and mournful, is showcased on the sexiest numbers, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Ophelia,” as well as on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” where he borrows from the blues masters the trick of converting tragedy and grief into expressive melody. Helm is also, not surprisingly, the best raconteur of the group, whether he’s talking about the musician’s experience of New York City or relating the mixing of disparate musical strains that produced rock ‘n’ roll. Danko hops from one foot to the other as he performs; he’s the most exuberant and youthful of the five, his rocket-in-his-pocket energy suggesting (as do his looks) the young Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy in Scorsese’s Mean Streets. But he’s a magnificent balladeer as well: his rendering of the great masochistic torch song “It Makes No Difference” is one of the film’s highlights, along with his reading of “Stage Fright.” Manuel’s eyes are full of both humor and sadness; when he throws his baritone, a deep well with glints of silver that float up mysteriously on the high notes, into “The Shape I’m In,” he reaches a reserve of anguish that seems fuller than even Rick’s or Levon’s. Robertson’s guitar grounds every song but slender, almost wraithlike, never still, he barely seems to touch the stage floor. Meanwhile Hudson, his hair flying, is the group’s audacious experimenter, their ticket to the psychedelic end of the musical spectrum, notably on “Genetic Method/Chest Fever.” 

Levon Helm sings "Up on Cripple Creek" in The Last Waltz (1978).

The Last Waltz rarely shows us the audience. Scorsese is interested in how the performers relate to each other onstage – with the way Ronnie Hawkins, during the joyous wild-man number “Who Do You Love?,” fans Robbie’s guitar with his cowboy hat as if to cool down his red-hot licks, or the kick the members of the group visibly get out of the contributions of Dr. John and Van Morrison and especially the fabled Muddy Waters. (On “Mannish Boy,” Waters really is the walking blues.) And, of course, he’s interested in translating the vibrancy of the performances onto the screen. He and his half-dozen expert cinematographers pull off what film was invented to accomplish: watching The Last Waltz is even better than it must have been to witness the Winterland concert live.

The mammoth 1977 Big Band musical New York, New York, filmed on soundstages with De Niro and Liza Minnelli in order to both reproduce and comment on the 1940s movies that Minnelli’s father made and her mother starred in, had been Scorsese’s first foray into that genre; he was still editing it when Robbie drew him into this project. And he got to transfer some of the skills he had honed on New York, New York to three stand-alone numbers in The Last Waltz, shot on a soundstage after the concert and interpolated into the movie. One is “Evangeline,” featuring Emmylou Harris; one is the title instrumental, which is the last thing we hear and see – its visual style is expressionistic, and it recalls Gjon Mili’s experimental jazz short Jammin’ the Blues (1944). And one is “The Weight,” featuring The Staples Singers. The song, with its ambiguous biblical narrative and its unmistakable theme – salvation through community – is probably the most stunning piece Robertson has ever written and The Band ever recorded. Here it begins with Levon, singing with an orange special glowing over his shoulder like a harvest moon. The incomparable Mavis Staples, as elegant as she is soulful, takes the second verse, her gospel alto dripping like honey as she embroiders both the musical phrases and – the fingers of one hand delicately slapping the palm of the other – the beat. Pop Staples, churchy authority ringing through his scraped-down voice, picks up the musical baton, then Rick (of course, he gets the “crazy Chester” stanza), and he shares the final verse with Robbie and Levon, Mavis Staples leading back-up with her two sisters’ help. At the end, when she whispers, “Beautiful” into the awed silence, the moment is inspired. But then, the whole performance is. On this version of “The Weight,” the community that points the road to salvation is both black and white, and the implicit utopian promise of the number can break your heart. And even without the consciousness that a viewer can’t help but bring to it two decades into the twenty-first century, I think it’s the most sublime performance of popular music I’ve ever encountered.

The first time I saw The Last Waltz I was twenty-seven and in thrall to The Band, whom I’d seen perform live with Dylan when the Before the Flood tour made its stop at the Montreal Forum. In the movie Robertson, Danko and Manuel are all around thirty-three, Helm and Hudson just a few years older. The Band were concluding their life on the road, but they expected to continue to work together in the studio, and on the Winterland stage they look impossibly young and transported by the joy of making some of the most beautiful music in the world. But interpersonal problems, caused or exacerbated by Helm’s and Danko’s and Manuel’s heroin addiction, wound up breaking them up for good. (Robbie reports on this sad falling-off in both his memoir, Testimony, and in the narration of the documentary Once Were Brothers.) Richard killed himself in 1986; Rick died of heart failure in 1999, at the age of fifty-five, and at the end of his life he looked almost unrecognizable, his face bloated by years of booze and dope. When the film was given a twenty-fifth-anniversary re-release early in the millennium, I was excited to see it again on the big screen, but the images of those brilliant young men, soaring on their musical gifts and on the seemingly bottomless spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, were almost too much for me. I wept in my seat; it took me a good half-hour to calm down and settle into the music. This time watching the picture again wasn’t agonizing, but through the years The Last Waltz has definitely acquired a sadness it didn’t have in 1978. That feeling pours like glaze over the surface of what may have been the most jubilant day in rock ‘n’ roll history and what is certainly the most extraordinary cinematic document of that history.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.    

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