Movies That Stay With You: Martin Scorsese's Elegiac, Era-Defining 'The Last Waltz'
‘See the man with the stage fright
Just standing up there to give it all his might.
And he got caught in the spotlight,
But when we get to the end
He wants to start all over again.’
San Francisco, Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Five thousand uniquely fortunate souls file into an ornately decorated Winterland Ballroom. They have come to be witness to an end of an era; a kiss-off farewell concert by one of the greatest rock’n’roll groups of all time. Backstage, a lone and manic figure darts back and forth, his slight frame vibrating with seemingly limitless energy. Adjusting his glasses, Martin Scorsese is finalising his preparations for the capture of this singular night.
The five musicians at the centre of it all, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, started out their professional musical lives at the tail end of the 1950s as a backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Before long they joined forces with Bob Dylan, with whom they had an incredibly fruitful writing and performing partnership — being present, amongst other things, at his infamous electric ‘Judas’ gig and accompanying tour. After they parted ways with Dylan they struck out on their own, carrying on under the name that they came upon almost by default — ‘The Band’ — and releasing stone cold classics like ‘Music From Big Pink’, their eponymous follow-up, and ‘Stage Fright’. By 1976, this group of incredibly talented and hard-working musicians had been touring for nigh-on sixteen years. As guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson put it:
The Band had been together for 16 years together on the road. We played eight years in bars, dives and dancehalls, eight years in concerts, stadiums and arenas. [..] The road was our school. It gave us a sense of survival. It taught us all we know. There’s not much left that we can really take from the road. You can press your luck. The road has taken a lot of the great ones. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. Janis. Jimi Hendrix. Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.
Rather than press their luck they decided to put on one final show, at the first place that they ever played as ‘The Band’. The ensuing concert film — directed by Martin Scorsese and featuring camera work by Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond, and László Kovács (a combined cinematography featuring Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Five Easy Pieces, and Easy Rider, amongst others) — would have been a glorious enough experience had it just been ‘The Band’ playing by themselves. As it happened they decided to bring along a few friends. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, The Staple Singers, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, and Muddy fuckin’ Waters showed up to help see ‘The Band’ off that night, and I — not even being born until a decade after the fact — will never stop being grateful for the fact that it was captured for posterity. It is impossible to pick out favourites from the performances on show — although drunk-as-all-hell Van Morrison, none-more-cool Muddy Waters, and ‘The Band’s’ soaring rendition of their own ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ certainly put in convincing cases. No, the concert instead stands united and unbreakable as one solid entity that must be experienced as a whole. Because it is also not entirely just a concert. Interspersed between the performances are interviews with members of ‘The Band’ — sometimes together, sometimes individually — and the narrative thread being followed there weaves its way in and around and through the music until the two are scarcely distinguishable, telling a story at once ageless and yet entirely of its time.
The fact that the movie is visually resplendent — considering the stratospheric behind-the-camera talent already mentioned — goes without saying, but more than pure technical brilliance the chief achievement of the cinematography is how the mood and the feel of the night so completely bleeds through the screen when you watch The Last Waltz. Somehow, the totality of the experience seems to have miraculously been committed to film. This is as close as those of us who weren’t there are ever going to get; and as painful as it is not having been there, the movie does a damn incredible job of making you forget that pain.
The film can be enjoyed just as is, but the remarkable thing happens when the experience is further transformed and shaped by being privy to even a bit of backstory. I won’t exhaust myself here by documenting them as there are better written and more complete accounts out there, but whether it is titbits like the blob of cocaine hanging from Neil Young’s nose having to be rotoscoped out in post-production revealing the debauchery taking place backstage; the incredibly close friendship that developed between Scorsese and Robertson during production; or the bungled communication that led to only one camera being switched on for the entirety of Muddy Waters’ performance; or indeed the bigger, more seismic matter that could be seen as the key deception at the heart of the whole project: the fact that it was only really Robertson who wanted to call it a day, that it’s more his version of the story being told than anything else (the oft-repeated anecdote is that after the band’s first viewing of the movie Levon Helm stood up and sarcastically proclaimed, ‘Not bad. Could’ve used more Robbie though!’), and the bitter acrimony that would poison the relationships between many in the group following the concert until some of their dying days. Knowledge of these things could have the combined effect of making the movie a more unpleasant story to experience. It almost feels like it should. After all, if one of the central pillars of your story is revealed to be a lie, of what use is the story? As far as I’m concerned, however, this is categorically not the case. If anything this big deception is as much part of the story now as the much smaller, cocaine-disappearing lies. It is all of a whole. What matters is what the movie represents: an end of an era, one way or the other. The bittersweet knowledge of truth mingles with the at times euphoric and at times weary stage show, producing something essentially ineffable. Something that transcends time and space.
And if that isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, I don’t know what the fuck is.
I have watched this movie more times than I can count. You should too.