THE LAST WALTZ

Director Martin Scorsese
Year 1978
Starring Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris
Rating PG
Run Time 117min
Age Policy

18 and up; Children 6 and up will be allowed only with a parent guardian. No children under the age of 6 will be allowed.

More Info IMDb

Ask someone who recently attended a Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift show about the experience and you'll probably hear about choreography, special effects, costume changes and elaborate sets. That's what most superstar concerts are all about these days. The music is there, certainly, but it's been pushed into the background, dwarfed by giant video screens, background dancers and a circus-style presentation.

That was not always the case, as director Martin Scorsese's THE LAST WALTZ reminds us. Filmed over the Thanksgiving weekend in 1976 and released almost two years later, the documentary captures the final concert by The Band, the group that rose to prominence backing up Bob Dylan in the late 1960s and went on to score a few hits of their own with "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight."

By 1976, however, the quartet had been on the road for 16 years and, as Scorsese tells us through brief but insightful interview segments, the rock 'n roll lifestyle had taken its toll. "The numbers start to scare you," sleepy-eyed frontman Robbie Robertson tells Scorsese. "I mean I couldn't live with 20 years on the road. I don't think I could discuss it."

THE LAST WALTZ, staged at San Francisco's Winterland hall, was a star-studded love letter not only to The Band, but also to a style of music that was rapidly disappearing in the second half of the 1970s. The Band's folkified brand of rock, beautifully encapsulated in Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," still had its followers, but it was being eclipsed on the charts by Elton John's glitzy pop, the "New West" anthems of the Eagles and the disco thump of Donna Summer.

No wonder The Band was ready to hang it up. "We did eight years in bars, dives, dancehalls, eight years of concerts in stadiums, arenas," Robertson tells Scorsese. Throughout the film, Robertson and the guys reminisce about their adventures: the performance at a dump in Texas that featured a one-armed go-go dancer; being broke and having to shoplift groceries; their hunt for bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. 

"The music, it took us everywhere," Robertson admits. "It took us to some strange places, physically, spiritually and psychotically."

The luscious, luminous look of THE LAST WALTZ is no accident. Rather than simply setting up a few cameras to record the moment, Scorsese actually scripted and storyboarded the film, transforming the Winterland into a makeshift soundstage and planning out the sequences as precisely as he did the musical numbers in "New York, New York," which he was in the process of completing at the time.

Remarkably, the performances show no signs of being reined in or rehearsed. In fact, as Scorsese's cameras swirl around the musicians, all we see is joy and high spirits. Although Robertson and the rest of The Band are mostly low-key in their interviews, they spring to life onstage. There's palpable passion in drummer Levon Helm's singing on "Dixie" and "Ophelia," and in the playing of bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. Robertson spends much of the concert with an astonished smile on his face, as if he can't believe he's at the center of this celebration.

THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! declares a title at the beginning. Believe it.

The Band's energy level infects many of the guest stars as well. Midway through "Who Do You Love?" Ronnie Hawkins lets loose with a four-tiered scream that even he seems surprised he was capable of. Neil Young rips into the heart-rending "Helpless" as if it's the only chance he'll ever have to sing the song; he's joined by Joni Mitchell, who performs achingly perfect backup vocals from backstage, her sylph-like figure silhouetted against a light purple curtain. Later, Mitchell returns to take center stage with an enthralling version of "Coyote," her arresting voice cascading over The Band's percolating beat.

A spry Eric Clapton sits in on "Further On Up the Road," indulging in a good-natured guitar duel with Robertson. Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and the Staple Singers ("The Weight") contribute their own special sparkle in mesmerizing segments that were shot after the concert.

Ninety minutes into the movie, Bob Dylan appears, sporting curly hair, a beard, a leather jacket and a ghetto fabulous white fedora with a feather. He sings "Forever Young," and tinges the optimistic lyrics with an unmistakable solemnity. He seems to speak directly to The Band, well-aware there's a lot more hard-won experience on that stage than there is youthful idealism.

But his song might have been directed at the music industry itself, a plea to the movers and shakers not to lose sight of the essential glory of music. If you think his message hit home, you obviously haven't been following the pop charts in recent years, as questionable but photogenic talents are routinely anointed as superstars and singer-songwriters who've learned their craft the hard way, the way The Band and most of their peers did, are generally left behind in the stardust. (James Sanford)

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