The Last Waltz

I had planned to write a recap of our Pietism colloquium this weekend, but… Well, I’m Pietism-ed out for the moment. So I decided I needed a palate cleanser of a post, to write about something or someone that couldn’t possibly be connected back to Pietism. So…

My favorite Martin Scorsese movie is Goodfellas. Mine and ten million other people’s.

But my vote for the most interesting Scorsese flick isn’t Goodfellas. Or Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, or even Raging Bull. (And definitely not anything he’s made since Casino.)

The Last Waltz (2002 re-release poster)It’s The Last Waltz, based primarily on the last concert played (on Thanksgiving Day of 1976) by the full roster of the band known simply as The Band.

Now, I’m interested to a large extent simply because it’s about The Band, and I’ll admit that not everyone shares that affinity. There was a solid year of my life in graduate school when I think I played the Band’s self-titled second album at least twice a week. I’ve moved on from that rut, but I would still take still think The Band might be the greatest recording, song-for-song, in the history of popular music. (And if my erstwhile musical debating partner and cultured despiser of the Band Michial Farmer hasn’t started to draft a snarky rejoinder by now, it’s because his head has exploded.)

But beyond that… I find The Last Waltz so captivating because it manages to capture the magical synthesis of talents that made The Band a band despite being essentially a vanity project for guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, who by 1976 had completely alienated his bandmates.

I admire Robertson’s songwriting with The Band — remarkably, a group that made its name backing the greatest songwriter of the rock’n’roll era had within itself someone who could write songs of the stature of “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And I’m also a fan of his guitar work: it’s a different kind of virtuosity than, say, Jimi Hendrix, but Robertson’s solo on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” would make my top five list, and he more than holds his own with admirer Eric Clapton on “Further on Up the Road” in the film (famously taking over Clapton’s part for a few bars after the other’s guitar strap came loose). Apart from such guitar hero moments, Robertson on film more often did what he did on record: adding licks, fills, and rhythm parts that supported his musical partners.

But that doesn’t change the fact that The Last Waltz is woven through with the man’s vanity; it’s a film shot by Robertson’s hand-picked director chronicling a Robertson-designed concert featuring mostly Robertson-written songs in celebration of a break-up that only Robertson had sought. All of which belies The Band’s early reputation as an egalitarian antidote to the egoism of rock as it entered the 1970s. (In the famous picture of The Band included with its debut album, Music from Big Pink — in which they’re dressed to reinforce the impression that the music could have come from the 1860s, not the 1960s — the individuals aren’t even identified by name.) It seems clear that there’s barely anything in the concert or film that doesn’t have his fingerprints on it, and it was edited such that Robertson (and his bronzed guitar!) is rarely off screen for more than a few seconds. As the story goes, Ronnie Hawkins — the rockabilly singer whom members of The Band had originally backed as The Hawks and who appears early on to cover Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” — stood up at the end of the first screening of The Last Waltz and snickered, “That was all right, but it sure could’ve used a few more shots of Robbie.”

This is often explained with reference to the close friendship between Robertson and Scorsese (his roommate during the editing of the film). And the two have gone on to collaborate on several more movies (including Raging Bull, scored by Robertson). But it’s always struck me that Scorsese could also see through his admiration for his star (and through whatever effects his heavy cocaine use had) and did little to disguise or justify Robertson’s preening.

No one was more bitter about the movie than singer/drummer Levon Helm, who recalled in his memoir (as quoted by music critic Greg Kot in a 2002 article on the film and the still-estranged Helm and Robertson):

For two hours [at a screening] we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut. The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck. The muscles on his neck stood out like cords when he sang so powerfully into his switched-off microphone.

As Kot observes, outside of Robertson, the rest of The Band (Helm, organist/saxophonist Garth Hudson, singer/pianist Richard Manuel, and bassist/singer Rick Danko) “were unenthusiastic participants at best. They slouch or mumble through the interviews, and Helm is sometimes downright hostile, his blue eyes like knives piercing the camera lens.”

And yet The Last Waltz comes closer than any other concert film to helping one understand how a rock band works and why it’s such a unique musical accomplishment when it’s successful.

The movie has been criticized by Kot and others for being obsessed with the musicians involved (not just The Band, but guest stars as impressive as Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young — singing “Helpless” with Joni Mitchell offering ethereal vocal assistance off-stage, and — in two postscripts filmed on a sound stage — Emmylou Harris and the Staple Singers)to the extreme that you rarely see the faces of the people who paid exorbitant (for the time) ticket prices to watch The Band’s last concert.

"I Shall Be Released" at The Last Waltz
Bob Dylan and other guests join The Band to sing his “I Shall Be Released” (one of the tracks on Music from Big Pink) — Creative Commons (David Gans)

That’s true, but it’s hard to care too much when you get to watch close up the interplay between five gifted musicians (and their guests). Just in the first musical clip (actually an encore: “Don’t Do It”), I love seeing everyone find the groove before the lyrics kick in, then how each band member exchanges looks and nods with the others, as if arranging the performance in the middle of it.

All this thanks to Scorsese’s decisions (a) to storyboard every song based on insights from Robertson, other members of the band, and their longtime producer, John Simon, and (b) to have up to seven stationary 35mm cameras rolling at once — several operated by future giants of cinematography like Vilmos Zsigmond (about to win an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Laszlo Kovacs (already with Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces under his belt), and Michael Chapman (a camera operator on The Godfather and Jaws who would shoot Raging Bull with Scorsese).

What they captured was a band still near the peak of its collective powers (on stage, if not in the studio — latter albums never came close to the magic of the first two). And for all the focus on Robertson, every one got chances to shine — in lead and supporting roles:

Levon Helm, with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel
Levon Helm (on guitar), with Rick Danko and Richard Manuel (taking Helm’s spot on drums) in a 1971 concert — Creative Commons (Heinrich Klaffs)

Rick Danko singing his heart out on “Stage Fright,” and adding the movie’s most painfully honest moment, as described by Kot: “…Danko, who when asked by Scorsese what he plans to do next, mumbles a reply, tucks his shaggy head inside his hat, and sinks into the darkness while a mournful song plays from his forthcoming solo album.”

Garth Hudson, rarely coaxed into speech, seemingly lost in the world of his own musical imaginings as his keyboard produces unreal noises swirling around “Helpless” and other songs.

Richard Manuel — his body all odd angles and his eyes alternately smoldering and hazy — telling of false starts in naming the group (The Crackers, The Honkies) and singing the too-true “The Shape I’m In.” (Starting around 0:40 of the YouTube clip below is a shot that nicely captures The Band’s three vocalists producing their unique blend of voices.)

And Levon Helm, whose death just a few days ago prompted me to go back and watch The Last Waltz, demonstrating that he — not Robbie Robertson — would be the successful (if too rare) film actor (Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff). Those angry blue eyes piercing Scorsese’s camera even as his inviting Arkansas drawl described New York as “an adult portion” (encapsulating in three words much of the director’s cinematic corpus). Lending that inimitable “folk bayou” drumming to song after song. (As Scorsese put it when interviewed about Helm’s death: “Levon’s touch was so delicate, so deft, that he gave you more than just a beat—he gave the music a pulse.”) And investing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with all the anger, despair, resignation, shame, and dignity that only a Southerner could bring to such a song.

5 thoughts on “The Last Waltz

  1. As a longtime Band fan let me just say that this is the most informed, interesting and insightful of the many pieces I have read this week! Thanks and for those who may be prompted to make an excellent investment, the Last Waltz special edition DVD is available on Amazon for $6.99!

  2. I don’t hate The Band exactly, but I don’t get their appeal. And I do hate Richard Manuel’s whiny vocals. When Levon Helm was at, well, the helm, I liked them just fine.

    1. I like Manuel much more adding harmony. Though in small doses, his whine is a nice change of pace from Helm and Danko; his “Whispering Pines” on the second album is haunting.

      1. Let me make sure I have my singers right. Who does “Tears of Rage”?

        My two favorite Band songs: “Chest Fever” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” which I believe are both Helm, right?

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