Concert film documents the final performance of The Band, the rock, rhythm & blues group featuring Levon Helm on drums and vocals, Rick Danko on bass and vocals, Richard Manuel on piano, Garth Hudson on synthesizer, and Robbie Robertson on guitar. Robertson, the group’s principal songwriter, felt that after sixteen years on the road, he was ready to quit performing.
Their swan song was held on November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, site of the group’s first show as The Band in 1969. Organized and promoted by Bill Graham, it started out as just a farewell performance. But the group decided to invite guests that had been pivotal in their development, and the lineup grew.
Ronnie Hawkins, their first frontman, was invited. Bob Dylan, whom The Band played backup for throughout the ’60s, was invited. Muddy Waters was asked to represent Chicago blues. Eric Clapton, British blues. The Staple Singers, gospel. Emmylou Harris, country. Neil Diamond, Tin Pan Alley. Dr. John, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and Ron Wood were also coming.
The concert film grew in scope as well. Toward the end of his 100 day schedule on New York, New York, Martin Scorsese was called by producer Jonathan Taplin and asked if he wanted to shoot a documentary of the show. Scorsese was an admirer of The Band, and the roster – which ran the gamut of American rock – impressed him. Despite having only six weeks to prepare, he agreed immediately.
Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs and director of photography Michael Chapman were among the camera operators. Scorsese meticulously storyboarded the songs, setting up lighting and camera cues to match the lyrics. Much of that went out the window on the night of the show, when equipment malfunctions and maneuverability prevented all the songs from being covered.
The Last Waltz has been hailed as not only one of the best concert movies ever, but one of the great rock movies of all time. After the show, Scorsese shot interviews with The Band at their recording studio in Malibu, and also filmed for several days on a soundstage at MGM, restaging The Band’s performances with The Staple Singers, and Emmylou Harris.
The sequences Scorsese shot in a controlled environment are the best in the film. The Staple Singers performing “The Weight” with The Band could rank as one of the best music videos ever done. The camera movement and lighting beautifully capture the emotion of the music. The way Scorsese inserts images of the vast, densely populated soundstage neatly sum up the end-of-an-era feeling he tries to conjure throughout the film.
Boris Leven built a tremendous stage for the concert, renting a set from the San Francisco Opera’s production of La traviata and stringing up chandeliers. The lighting is equally elegant, with warm amber footlights employed to give the performances a classic look. As far as the music, The Band performing “Helpless” with Neil Young stands out. Because they wanted her appearance later to be a surprise, Joni Mitchell sings mesmerizing backing vocals shrouded in darkness behind the stage.
Whether Scorsese was just better acquainted with Robertson, or none of the other band members had much to say to him, the interviews are lacking. They could have been cut in favor of more concert footage anyway. The event started at 5pm, with Thanksgiving dinner catered to 5,000 concert goers. It was followed by ballroom dancing, then The Band and their guests performing a marathon show that went from 9 pm to 2:30 am.
The event itself, and its music, are vastly superior to what Scorsese managed to get on film. The technical difficulties – limiting how much of the show could be documented, and how effectively – are just one thing. A bigger problem is Scorsese’s insistence that this film be about “the end.” “The end” of what exactly is never made clear in the movie, whose theme feels misappropriated.
Bands break up and reunite – The Band got back together in 1983, sans Robertson – and Scorsese’s idea that something was coming to an end here rang false to me. Most of the musicians who appear – from Neil Young to Muddy Waters to Clapton to Robbie Robertson – found more success after the decade was over.
The Winterland shut down on New Year’s Eve, 1978. If you wanted to imply something in rock ‘n roll was coming to an end, a film on the venue – and why changes in the industry were forcing it to shutter – may have had a heartbeat that The Last Waltz misses for the most part. For what it was, I would have enjoyed this film if it had been more music, less liner notes.