I saw The Last Waltz again last week, at the Tarrytown Music Hall, and, as always, I loved it. The first time I saw it was in Paris (lah-di-fucking-dah), during the summer between junior and senior year of college. At the time, although I certainly was aware of, and enjoyed, the music of The Band, I have to admit that I really didn’t appreciate how important, or how good, they were. It really wasn’t until much later, when I began to pay more attention to what is now called Americana music that I began to understand the central role that The Band had in fusing rock music with strands of old American folk, blues and country music.
I’d like to say that I have some sort of new insight into the film, which reveals more to me every time I see it, but I don’t. Generally considered one of the best, if not the best, rock concert movies, or even music documentaries, it has been dissected at length. For example, here. Of course the film has been criticized for a number of reasons, mostly its focus on Robbie Robertson, especially by Levon Helm.
The combination of pre-planning that made everything on stage look effortless, the rough charm and humor of the musicians in telling their between-songs anecdotes (who can forget the story of having to pay Garth Hudson $10/week for music lessons), the skillful directing and editing (including not forcing the film to follow the running order of the concert) and the quality of The Band’s performances alone would have made it a good movie. But to me, what makes it a great one were two critical decisions–to focus the cameras on the musicians, often in closeups, allowing the viewers to see the way they interacted with glances, smiles and nods, and the decision to bring in a parade of distinguished guests. The Band started as The Hawks, supporting road warrior Ronnie Hawkins, and had their first real fame as Bob Dylan’s backing band, so as wonderful as it is to hear them play their familiar songs live, it is more fun seeing them enjoying backing up musicians as diverse as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.
Of all of the great guest performances, I think my two favorites are Van Morrison’s commanding rendition of “Caravan,” complete with his figurative “mike drop” walk-off:
and Joni Mitchell’s riveting “Coyote,” showing off her incomparable voice:
Another great moment in the film is the version of “The Weight,” featuring the Staples Singers, recorded in a studio, which I’ve written about here. It’s great how director Martin Scorsese pans from The Band after the first verse to surprise us with Mavis Staples and family. Even though I knew it was coming, Mavis’ vocals gave me chills.
The film only showed a fraction of the music played that night (plus the few songs added later), and I understand that there was significant sweetening in post-production. In writing this post, I found a YouTube channel from Music Vault, which has much, if not all, of the concert, in black & white video. Here’s Neil Young covering fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds”
And here is the version of “The Weight,” as performed on stage, without any Staples, making it more folk and less gospel:
At the Music Hall, before the film, they showed this video, of “Gloryland,” the encore from The Levon Helm Band, on the same stage, on March 24, 2012. Other than a Midnight Ramble at his Barn studio in Woodstock, it was Helm’s final performance.
For reasons lost in the mists of history, my wife and I decided not to go that night, and we are still kicking ourselves.