- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 20, 2002

"The Last Waltz," the most satisfying documentary showcase for a rock band ever filmed, has returned in a 25th-anniversary edition that slightly overshoots and undershoots the relevant dates.
The inspiration for the movie, released in 1978, was that after 16 years on the road, the rock quintet the Band had decided to give a farewell concert.
The concert climaxed a Thanksgiving Day celebration at Winterland in San Francisco in 1976. About 5,000 ticket holders began with a full-course sit-down meal, accompanied by orchestral music. A dance recital with waltzing couples preceded the concert.
The two-part presentation consisted of the Band reviving its numbers for an hour and then having guest performers who were close to the musicians join them for a follow-up session. The guests included Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison and finally Bob Dylan, who had recruited the group as his own band in the late 1960s.
Martin Scorsese, who had been shooting "New York, New York," supervised the film record of the Winterland concert. He added interview sequences with himself as the inquiring Band fan and then studio-set performance segments with the Staples and Emmylou Harris, who evidently remained indispensable to the conception despite missing the big night in San Francisco.
The movie was produced by Robbie Robertson, Band guitarist and cover boy, who sustained his involvement with movies and his collaboration with Mr. Scorsese well into the next decade. He contributed scores to "Raging Bull" and "The Color of Money," among other things.
A somewhat jaundiced friend with vast knowledge of the rock world assures me that Mr. Robertson's financial stake in the project accounts for his generous "face time" in the interview sessions. Mr. Robertson, creative adviser for DreamWorks Records, also remixed the soundtrack.
His only rival as a raconteur within the Band appears to be drummer Levon Helm, the sole American in an otherwise Canadian contingent. He also was a performer distinctive and versatile enough to add film acting to his career in the wake of the group's retirement. (Mr. Helm, bass guitarist Rick Danko and keyboardist Garth Hudson reunited in 1993 and formed a band with three new members. Pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986.)
Mr. Helm played Sissy Spacek's father very memorably in "Coal Miner's Daughter." He was Sam Shepard's droll sidekick at Edwards Air Force Base in "The Right Stuff."
That two members of the group have died in recent years the other is Mr. Danko gives the movie an elegiac resonance that didn't exist in 1978.
Both the song selections for the concert and the interview selections that made the final cut show not only the evolution of the Band, but also the evolution of rock music from earlier pop and folk sources, notably country, blues, gospel and jazz. (Mr. Helm is wonderfully concrete and disarming when making these points in the movie.)
So many top-flight cinematographers and camera operators were engaged to shoot the "Last Waltz" concert and its supplementary sequences that it seemed like a put-on. The camera crews arguably were as all-star as the concert musicians.
The camera coverage and sound recording achieved a clarity and richness that were unprecedented in this particular genre, which usually settled for raggedy hand-held imagery in 16 mm and unreliable instrumental reproduction. Mr. Robertson took considerable care to make the farewell an optimum memento, distinguished by an audiovisual immediacy that would remain forever flattering.
When Miss Mitchell sings "Coyote" with the Band, her melodic and verbal virtuosity is so spellbinding that it seems a pity nine or 10 other movies of the decade didn't recruit her to do solo interludes.
A "special edition" DVD of "The Last Waltz" that promises augmented interview sessions, multiple commentary tracks and "jam footage" is being released next month. A bulging new soundtrack album a boxed seat of four CDs appears more or less simultaneously with the theatrical revival, promising rehearsals and the performances that didn't make the final cut for one reason or another.
I am particularly intrigued by the notion of an audio commentary track with Mr. Helm and Mr. Hudson. I always wanted to hear more of the Helm interviews, and I was disappointed that so little was heard from Mr. Hudson. Customarily the organist, he keeps turning up playing such other instruments as a saxophone and an accordion.
Mr. Robertson singles him out as the group's indispensable repository of musical wisdom and skill; he even hints that Mr. Hudson joined the group in part to cure its ignorance. One suspects that this soft-spoken musical sage might have been too introspective for prolonged face time in the original chronicle. I look forward to satisfying my curiosity about what else was on his mind in 1976.

TITLE: "The Last Waltz," at the Cineplex Odeon Janus 3
RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity and candid recollections in a documentary context)
CREDITS: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Produced by Robbie Robertson. Cinematography by Michael Chapman, with additional cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, David Myers, Bobby Byrne, Michael Watkins and Hiro Narita. Production design by Boris Leven. Music editor: Ken Wannberg
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes

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