[box cover]

The Last Waltz: Special Edition

MGM Home Video

Starring The Band — Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko,
Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson

Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

In 1976, the group known collectively as The Band — guitarist Robbie Robertson, bass player Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and keyboard wizard Garth Hudson — decided to hang it up and stop touring. They'd been on the road for 16 years, having first come together in the early '60s as the back-up band for rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins. After struggling through various artistic and temperamental differences with Hawkins, they struck out on their own — first as Levon and the Hawks, then as The Canadian Squires and finally, simply, The Hawks. After recording two singles, they were approached by Bob Dylan, who was looking to go electric and needed a back-up band. The resulting tour was famous mostly for the intense animosity with which Dylan's folkie fan-base greeted his new approach; they were regularly booed by crowds (most notably at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival) and had food and bottles thrown at them. Helm left the band, returning to his native Arkansas, later saying that he wasn't sure if he'd return to music at all.

In 1966, while Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident, the group joined him at a large house nicknamed "Big Pink" in upstate New York, near Woodstock. During a period of intense songwriting and recording (during which time Helm returned to the fold), the group decided to officially take on the name they'd been known by all along — The Band — and made the oft-bootlegged music that would eventually be released as 1978's "The Basement Tapes." Their 1968 album "Music from Big Pink" was released to widespread critical acclaim, with distinctive songs like "The Weight" and "This Wheel's on Fire" blending country, blues, rock and jazz in a way that was utterly unique.

Over the course of several albums, The Band gave the world a drawer full of classic rock songs — the kind of songs that you hear on the radio, you know all the words, but for some reason it never occurs to you that they're all by the same group. Besides "The Weight," there's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Shape I'm In," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Stage Fright," "Ophelia," and a whole lot more besides. While The Band were never chart busters, they developed a legion of devoted fans and were considered by musicians themselves to be one of the most influential musical influences of the late '60s/early '70s (Eric Clapton, in fact, cited The Band as his inspiration to leave Cream and go for it on his own).

When The Band made the decision to break up, they started planning one huge, final farewell concert. They scheduled it for Thanksgiving Day 1976 at Bill Graham's famous San Francisco venue, Wonderland — the club where the group had played their first gig as The Band. As they prepared, it became more and more of an event; rather than just another concert of The Band's music, they figured, why not also invite musicians who were both friends and influences over the years, offering smatterings of the various musical styles melded together to create their sound. While putting together the line-up, it also occurred to them that it would be great to have an archival record of the evening. Through a friend, Robertson contacted director Martin Scorsese, who put aside his current project (a little movie he was wrestling with called New York, New York) to throw his typically obsessive creative weight behind the project. The resulting film, The Last Waltz, has been called the greatest concert film ever made (of course, so have D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop, as well as Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock.) And it may well be — although perhaps not for the reasons one might assume.

Younger viewers, those in their 20s, surely won't see The Last Waltz in the same way as those who were around in 1976 — especially those who were around music and musicians at the time. Funky, hippie-rock was on its way out, and punk and New Wave hadn't quite started to seep onto the radio. Drugs were everywhere, with Jack Daniels and marijuana losing popular ground to cocaine and heroin. And while the stories told by the principals in The Last Waltz make no mention of drugs, it's impossible to watch the film without the legendary stories about it resonating in your brain — that cocaine was everywhere backstage that night; that when they first saw the footage of Neil Young's performance, there was a huge piece of coke stuck to his left nostril, and the filmmakers hired an aging Hollywood touch-up artist to remove the musician's "booger" from the film, frame-by-frame; and that soon after the film was made, both Robertson's and Scorsese's marriages ended, and the two shared a house together where they'd draw the blackout curtains closed, do endless lines of coke and watch movies for days at a time (for more dirt, check out Peter Biskind's excellent book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.)

With that in mind, it's easy to see the weariness in the members of The Band in 1976. "Sixteen years on the road is long enough," says Robertson. "Twenty years is unthinkable." After running down a handful of musicians who died on the road — Hank Williams, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis — he says, "It's a goddamn impossible way of life." On stage, the group are professional and play with the sort of beautiful, tight, almost telepathic connection that comes from 16 years together. But they look tired, and there isn't any joy in their eyes. You can tell that they're enjoying the party, but they're definitely ready to put it aside. Most of the guest artists liven up things a bit, especially Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John and Muddy Waters (who offers up a kick-ass version of "Mannish Boy"), but some seem strangely out of place. Bob Dylan, surprisingly, has no real connection to the band members on stage with him at all, and his enormous white pimp hat is distracting as hell; Neil Diamond, a friend of Robertson's from his early '60s Tin Pan Alley days, looks like he wandered into the wrong concert; and Joni Mitchell just appears to be supremely pissed off about something. Maybe Neil Young did all her coke.

With drug-fueled ardor — and undoubtedly relieved to get a bit of a break from the nightmare that New York, New York was becoming — Scorsese turned the filming of The Last Waltz from a simple record of the evening into a serious film. He made the switch from 16mm to 35mm stock and then brought some of his more talented colleagues on board: cinematographer Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, Taxi Driver), Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind,), and Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces) plus production designer Boris Leven (West Side Story, The Sound of Music). He made Robertson give him lyric sheets for all the songs, then created storyboards and a 300-page "shooting script" for the concert, listening to the music with an eye toward who should be on camera at what point, what colors should be used, when to use tracking shots, two-shots and close-ups. Pieces of a set for the San Francisco Opera's "La Traviata" were rented for the stage, with two enormous chandeliers hung overhead. Over the course of the five-hour concert, cameras ran out of film, motors were burned up, and some songs just didn't make it to film — Muddy Waters "Mannish Boy" was almost lost because, due to a communication error, all the cameramen took a break at the same time (only Laszlo Kovacs caught the entire performance as Scorsese desperately worked to round up more crew; all but the very end of the song is one long take by Kovacs' camera.)

What makes The Last Waltz great, even more than the music, is Scorsese's obsessive eye. There are no crowd shots in the film, save what you see when the band is captured from the rear of the stage looking out; Scorsese was a cameraman and principal editor on Woodstock, and he thought that crowd shots "had been done already." And very little time is spent on long shots of the stage as a whole. The film is amazingly intimate, lingering on faces more than guitar licks, catching the seamless way that the players communicate on stage — as well as the tired, world-weariness that accompanies the workmanlike (yet no less impressive) way they present their music. Unlike so many concert films that really are just archival records, the result isn't to make you feel as if you were at the concert — it's to make you feel as if you were part of the concert, an active member of the proceedings. Criticized at the time of its release as being overblown and pretentious, it's hard to see that now — compared to modern music videos, it's positively stripped-down. Even the three added-on songs that were shot later on an MGM soundstage ("Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris, "The Weight" with the Staple Singers, and Robertson's haunting theme written for The Last Waltz) are simply shot, focusing on the interaction of the players without any flash or gimmickry.

More than a simple concert film, The Last Waltz tells a story of the end of a band, the end of a musical era, and the wide range of musical influences that created 70's rock-and-roll. Like watching the Beatles in Let it Be, what's captured on film is the final flame of a once-great band, making it nearly impossible to enjoy The Last Waltz as a simple record of an evening's entertainment. There were subsequent albums supposedly by The Band, but Robbie Robertson — chief songwriter and keeper of The Band's flame — never took part. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986, and Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999.

And you can still see the hunk of cocaine stuck in Neil Young's nose.

*          *          *

For the 25th anniversary of The Last Waltz, MGM has put together a gorgeously crisp, very clean anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation for DVD. A newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track has been added — it's well-done, but keep in mind that the original stereo sound was recorded a quarter-century ago, so younger audiophiles may be expecting more from a concert film. The audio is uneven as well, with the concert footage noticeably louder than the interview portions of the film.

Two commentary tracks are provided, both offering their own unique sets of delights and disappointments. One track with Scorsese and Robertson offers the usual background on technical details, G-rated anecdotes, and careful banter. A second commentary track features a number of participants, including the group's tour manager, a journalist, various session musicians who played with The Band, a producer, and guests of the band who were at the show; an optional "identifying text" feature tells you their names, although it doesn't really matter. What's missing on these tracks are all the stories they don't tell, about band disagreements, Robertson's decision to break up the band over Helms' objections and the reaction of their bandmates' as Robertson produced the movie; and all the drugs.

Also on board are a 12-minute jam, not in the final film, that took place at the end of the concert featuring Clapton, Diamond, Harris, Mitchell, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and others; a 22-minute "making-of" featurette on the background behind The Last Waltz; an extensive still gallery; an eight-page booklet written by Robertson; and the original theatrical trailer and TV spot.

— Dawn Taylor

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