Last Waltz, The

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 03/08/10 23:14:10

"Yes, definitely play it loud."
5 stars (Awesome)

What is it about the Band? They sounded contemporary yet ancient — not really rock, not really country or blues or bluegrass, yet somehow all these things at once. Their songs were concise yet epic, steeped in bitter American history, though four-fifths of the Band were Canadian. They were a contradiction, and Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Waltz" catches all their aspects — including being a great live band performing live for the last time.

The first thing I noticed is that The Last Waltz sort of plays as Scorsese's unofficial Robert De Niro/Harvey Keitel team-up: does anyone else see the De Niro of Mean Streets in the quirky Rick Danko, or the younger Keitel in the anguished guitar grimaces of Robbie Robertson? Scorsese himself is heard and sometimes seen interviewing various Band members, looking more or less the same he did in his troubling Taxi Driver cameo. This was intense, coke-fueled '70s Scorsese, not the avuncular old wizard we know today, and Scorsese never smiles; he takes the musicians' often rambling answers very, very seriously. At times, Scorsese plays up the artifice of the interviews, leaving in a few shots that call attention to the very act of filming; at one point, Robertson asks Scorsese to ask a question again so he can re-answer from the top, and Scorsese leaves that in, too.

All of this gives the sense that the dissolution of the Band as a touring group is of unspeakable national import and must be recorded for posterity. The guest list certainly suggests a one-time-only event. Old confederate Ronnie Hawkins ambles on, ready for a party. An obviously coked-up Neil Young, as unstable and scruffy as Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance, grins madly and works his jaw all the way through "Helpless." I don't know whether the air-punching, high-kicking Van Morrison is stoned or drunk, but my money's on drunk. Neil Diamond stands far apart from everyone on stage, seeming drastically out of place (Robertson wanted him there, nobody else did). Joni Mitchell adds some sorely-needed estrogen to an otherwise masculine bacchanal (though Emmylou Harris also turns up in one of two studio-filmed segments that, while beautifully shot, seem out of sync with the live footage). Clapton pops in and shreds; Muddy Waters burns down the house. Finally Bob Dylan deigns to descend from the heavens and grace us peons with his presence, though, as per his stipulation, only two of the five songs he performed were filmed.

With an army of great cinematographers (Michael Chapman, László Kovács, Vilmos Zsigmond, among others) at his command, Scorsese keeps the camerawork steady, never resorting to lookit-me whip-pans or flashy editing. The music was infamously overdubbed, and Robertson's singing is seen but not heard (his mike was turned off); the result is The Perfect Concert, obviously fussed-over to make it as iconic and definitive as possible. Of the Band members, the one who pops out the most is ol' Levon Helm, the group's sole genuine American, a son of Arkansas who howls out Robertson's odes to Americana so soulfully you'd swear the songs had been around forever. That voice seems to issue from the gnarled tree branches of southern swamps. (Helm also gives the least of himself to the camera during the interview segments — he wasn't into the idea of the film at all.)

The Last Waltz is celebratory yet eligiac, sodden with the passing of an era. It was 1976, and the twin horns of punk and disco were about to impale arena rock for a while. The Band was huge, but also seemed more like musicians' musicians; they had their own sound, which seemed to die along with the '70s (though the Band later went on without Robertson). Scorsese, himself at a personal and career crossroads at the time, caught the exhaustion and elation of the performance. Everyone onstage has been at it for so many years the music feels instinctual — it's Scorsese the then-young master paying tribute to older masters. Mostly, everyone is playing to and for their stagemates, not to or for the big-ticket audience members — or us. We're crashing an epic party.

It's a real end-of-the-'70s document, an ideal dovetailing of image and sound to evoke a mood and a moment. It's as personal and obsessive a Scorsese film as any other from the period, somehow expressing a fast-lane urban sensibility even during those long slow takes of rural-roots anthems. The filmmaking is superbly controlled yet spontaneously alive. "The Last Waltz" transcends its origins as a "concert film" and becomes something larger and more mysterious, a playground of the gods, a requiem for a certain kind of performance event, a true last waltz in which the lastness is less important than the waltz.

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