1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 11
Martin Scorsese (director), The Last Waltz
In November 1976, the original line-up of The Band played its final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. In a brassy move for an act who never cracked the Top Twenty, they decided their finale needed a heroic send-off. Through a combination of business savvy, old-boy networking, and sheer Bill Graham audacity, they grabbed a set from the San Francisco Opera, and got Martin Scorsese to film their production.
The resulting performance straddles two worlds. They make music with the passion, the zeal that made their first two albums, and their Woodstock performance, so iconic. But the performance is so polished, its massive guest list so sprawling, that it becomes a commentary on post-hippie rock excess. Scorsese elicits some of the best performances ever filmed. But he also exposes the decay incipient at rock music’s profligate core.
Though they formerly backed Bob Dylan, and received more column inches in Rolling Stone magazine’s first decade than any other act, The Band never enjoyed their mainstream breakthrough. Their highest-charting single, “Up On Cripple Creek,” stalled at Number 25, and their most iconic song, “The Weight” (“Take a load off, Annie”) never hit the Top Forty. Though influential with other artists and songwriters, they never found a larger audience.
The audience they found, however, helped them organize this concert. The Band and Scorsese together leveraged a massive guest list that includes Dr. John, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, and a four-song set with Bob Dylan. The performance becomes a showcase of then-powerful rock luminaries. Checking these acts’ chart histories, however, reveals that nearly every one’s chart peak had passed.
If it’s true, as Andreas Killen wrote, that the 1960s basically ended in 1973, then this 1976 concert, already an oldies act, represents how idealism lingers after its influence tapers off. The camera work, capturing Robertson from low heroic angles, and the literally operatic stage, display the Band as superstars, masters of their art form, but also somehow mainstream, somebody trustworthy enough for an opera set and a multi-million-dollar production.
Tragically, with its cast of thousands, including Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Neil Diamond, this concert becomes a massive send-off to the havoc of the 1960s. The Band’s best-known work comes from its first two albums, released in 1968 and 1969, firmly establishing it in the long-haired Woodstock era; but like its guests, The Band kept soldiering well into the Seventies. The Band was essentially lingering after its welcome had already worn out.
Like DA Pennebaker’s equally disturbing Don't Look Back, which followed Dylan’s 1966 British tour, this movie showcases an artist whose identity has become public domain. Caught between being dangerous and being accepted, The Band play music that never stops rocking, but lacks the poisoned edge they once enjoyed. In ethics, they still strike blows against mediocrity. In practice, they’re as assimilated as John Denver, a safe post-hippie rebellion for dads.
Which is, in many ways, heartbreaking. The music remains iconic. The production of “The Weight,” performed here as a duet with the Staples Singers, is arguably more artistically ambitious than the 1968 album version. Stage performances of classics like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “I Shall Be Released,” have a new-raw edge their overproduced pop successors could never replicate.
But they’re also noticeably well-barbered and clean-shaven, the picture of mainstream assimilation. As they’ve grown more artistically capable, they’ve lost their danger. Perhaps their untrained youthful vigor provided the risk they once enjoyed. Or maybe they’ve been well-paid too long. As they become capable of attempting more complex, nuanced music, they lose the savage ambition they showed as kids. They’ve become an enterprise, not a band.
This mainstreaminess comes across in the extended interview sections. Though recovered footage shows Scorsese spoke at length with all five founding members of The Band, what makes the final cut primarily showcases songwriter Robbie Robertson. He’s visibly discussing topics he knows little about. Legend says Scorsese and Robertson got stoned and recut the film to make Robertson the star. The product, unfortunately, makes him look like a douche.
In sum, this film is a mixed bag. It spotlights an act whose best work is behind it, celebrating their retirement by surrounding themselves with icons of a dying generation. But it also captures some of the most exciting, dynamic rock performances ever filmed. It’s hard to finish the interview sections without laughing derisively. And it’s hard to finish the concert without feeling you’ve witnessed something religiously transcendent.