After sixteen years making music and touring, The Band gathers for a final extravaganza.
Capturing a time, a place, and an event in the history of rock and roll, The Last Waltz is a two hour time warp back to the '70s that shows us just how much times have changed. Sporting a fair collection of extra content and a new 5.1 audio mix, MGM gives The Last Waltz a treatment that The Band's fans should appreciate.
Facts of the Case
Song List (with featured Guests):
• "Don't Do It"
Beginning their life as "Levon and the Hawks" and a couple of name changes in between, The Band became known to a wider audience outside the "chitlin circuit" down South when a little folk singer named Bob Dylan decided to electrify his sound. Though the reception was not always friendly, they persevered and eventually put out their first album, Music From Big Pink in 1968. Members Rick Danko, Levon Helm (Coal Miner's Daughter, The Right Stuff), Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson (composer for The Color of Money and Any Given Sunday), began playing for huge crowds, culminating in 600,000 people at Watkin's Glen.
When the decision was made in 1976 to bring The Band to a close (though it has continued to exist in various forms since that time), it was decided to play their final gig at Bill Graham's Winterland in San Francisco, where they had performed their first show as The Band in 1969. To make this more than your average farewell performance, they called upon mentors, friends, and musical influences to join them on stage during a marathon concert that lasted from about 9:00PM until nearly 2:30AM.
Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan were obvious choices, having guided the members of The Band in their early years, but The Band also called upon friend Eric Clapton for his British blues, neighbor Van Morrison for his soulful singing, Chicago blues representatives Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield, folk musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, New Orleans sound from Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Beatle Ringo Starr, Ron Wood (of the Rolling Stones), and Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) for their contributions as well. Now do you see why it was a marathon that has produced its own four-CD set?
With the array of talent lined up, the feeling that this event should be documented led Robbie Robertson to meet with Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Casino), who was in the middle of filming New York, New York at the time. As a fan of The Band's music and with his experience as assistant director of Woodstock, Scorsese decided to make The Last Waltz over a long Thanksgiving weekend break in the hairy production schedule of New York, New York.
Scorsese attacked his new project with enthusiasm, pulling in cinematographer pals Michael Chapman (The Last Detail, Taxi Driver, The Fugitive), Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Two Jakes), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) as well as production designer Boris Leven (West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, Fletch). Though criticized at the time as an overblown, pretentious production, by modern standards The Last Waltz hardly seems overdone in light of the lavish overproduction of modern music videos and films.
The criticism of The Last Waltz as being overdone is curious. For all of the production, organization, and attention to detail that went into The Last Waltz, this is a concert film concerned primarily with the artists and their music, and not slick production values. These are rough-hewn musicians, concerned less with their appearance than their art, for what else explains Bob Dylan's white pimp hat, among the many odd fashion choices and un-coiffed hair. (However, a serene Joni Mitchell and a fetching Emmylou Harris are exceptions to this rule.) All of the performers are having a great time, which shows in the passion of their performances, though Neil Young in particular seems to have indulged in backstage pharmaceuticals to excess. A cool, heartfelt Joni Mitchell (singing "Coyote"), The Band's rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and Dr. John's "Such a Night" are highlights of mine, but none can compare with the heart-stopping, blues dripping from every pore, command performance of "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters.
Although Martin Scorsese briefly considered shooting The Last Waltz as simply an archival film in 16mm, he wisely made the move to 35mm and thus we have a beautiful concert film brought to disc in anamorphic video. Though filmed over 25 years ago, the quality of the picture is quite good with a lush, theatrical look that is decently crisp and almost totally clean. The only significant drawback is film grain that becomes conspicuous at times.
The new 5.1 mix is an improvement over the original remastered stereo surround track, but don't expect it to be on par with modern concert films. The musicians are nicely spread out over the front soundstage, with their instruments and voices heard distinctly and beautifully. The subwoofer plays a low-key but useful supporting role and the rear surrounds fill in some of the concert but primarily inject the buzz of the audience. The interview segments are far quieter than the concert, so you may find yourself boosting and lowering your volume throughout The Last Waltz.
The extra content is a decent package. The "Filmmaker and the Musician" commentary between director Martin Scorsese and Band member/producer Robbie Robertson is a fairly standard track with insight, production details, anecdotes, and the like. "The Band and Others" track has a "strong language" warning (though I don't think it hardly gets to R-rated territory), and in a nice touch it offers the option of identifying text for the numerous participants. A journalist, a fan/writer, The Band's tour manager, an associate producer, Band members, The Last Waltz guests, and others make up the army of contributors. It is disappointing only in that I expected more of an insight into what really happened behind The Last Waltz, given the resentment of Robbie Robertson's "rock-god" complex, Levon Helm's strong desire not to break up The Band, drug usage behind the scenes, and other matters. This track is a lot tamer than I would have guessed from my brief research for this review.
The archival outtake "Jam 2" is a 12-minute segment of informal jamming amongst various participants that took place late in the marathon concert, which was remixed into 5.1 but is strangely presented in full frame. The featurette is a twenty-two minute glimpse into the band and the genesis of The Last Waltz, primarily though the participation of Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese. Completing the content is a well documented photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer and a TV spot for The Last Waltz, and an eight page booklet written by Robbie Robertson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Last Waltz is going to make or break itself in your eyes on the basis of the music. Their sound is a widely varying mix of influences and is clearly marked with its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, so The Band is not going to be universally liked. If this is not your cup of tea, then I doubt a decent technical presentation or any amount of extras are really going to change your opinion.
I am also sure that I am not the only person who thinks that This Is Spinal Tap is aimed at or at least inspired by The Last Waltz. Perhaps an interesting evening would involve screening The Last Waltz, This Is Spinal Tap, and then Almost Famous?
This is a must-purchase for a fan of The Band ($25 retail), but for the rest of us who may have little to no idea who the heck The Band is or was, I would recommend a rental. You may not foam at the mouth over the whole disc, but you will find moments of pleasure, and certainly will expand your musical horizons just a bit.
The Court, in awe of the star-power assembled as guests of The Band, cannot find fault with any of the defendants. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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