Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Last Waltz

Message In The Music

By David Skolnick

The Last Waltz (United Artists, 1978) – Director: Martin Scorsese. Stars: The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, the Staple Singers, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Emmylou Harris, & Eric Clapton. Color, Rated PG, 117 minutes.

While I’m a big fan of both The Band and this film, I knew next to nothing about the group when I first saw The Last Waltz. My father, who loves The Band and had already seen the movie, woke me up one night around 10 p.m. – I was 10 years old at the time – and said the film was being shown nearby at midnight. Would I like to see it? Of course, who wouldn't want to sneak out of the house late at night with their dad to watch a concert movie?

To say I was completely blown away would be an understatement. The first thing shown on the screen at the start is: “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” The film projector guy was just following orders.

My love of The Band began that night. To see them play several of their great songs, and bring out many of my favorite musicians including Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, to perform with them, was an incredible experience. (Shortly after seeing the movie, I got my hands on The Best of the Band on cassette, and “borrowed” – and never returned – the triple-album soundtrack of the movie from my stepmother.)

I've seen The Last Waltz about 30 to 40 times over the years, as it was practically played to death for a few years on VH1 and during PBS pledge drives. 

As with other rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, has a nasty habit of clashing reality with fantasy. However, it is entertainment and not facts that is important when making a movie. Distorting the truth at times doesn't stop The Last Waltz from being one of the greatest rock films of all-time.

The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, showcases The Band's final concert with the five original members on Nov. 25, 1976. Scorsese's inexperience directing a rock-and-roll concert is apparent right away as the film opens with the group singing “Don't Do It,” one of their two Top 40 songs. The Band closed the four-plus-hour concert with that song.

We then get our first interview with a member of The Band. It's Robbie Robertson, and he talks about the group's final concert being at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the first facility in which they performed as The Band. Robertson talks of the last concert in philosophical terms and if there was any doubt that he was the star of the movie, the opening interview eliminates it.

It's back to the concert and Levon Helm sings lead on “Up on Cripple Creek,” the group's only other Top 40 song and a great tune off their second album, The Band – also known as The Brown Album – released in 1969. I didn't catch it until recently, but Helm mixes up some of the verses. Music promoter Bill Graham, who owned the Winterland, filmed the entire show in black and white, which lasted more than four hours and can be seen here. It shows Helm getting most of the verses correct. I can only speculate that Scorsese must have edited the song for the movie. It's also interesting to note that after the concert was done, The Band went into the studio to made changes to a number of songs – to correct missed or sour notes or to fill in music not picked up by microphones.

Scorsese asks Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel about the history of the group with Robertson doing most of the talking. It's obvious Manuel was pretty high as he comes across as being out of it, and does at least one interview lying on a couch. Next up we see Manuel singing “The Shape I'm In,” which is ironic as he's not in great shape. A cameraman picked him up perfectly with a spotlight and then it's quickly to a wide shot and then to Danko and Robertson, before returning briefly to Manuel, who does a great rendition of the song.

The first guest on the stage is Ronnie Hawkins, who recruited all five members as his band during the early 1960s. He sings Bo Didley's “Who Do You Love?” and leaves the stage before the song ends.

The film flips back and forth between the concert and the interviews. Robertson, Danko and Manuel talk about stealing food from a supermarket when they first started, as they had no money. While the other two talk, Robertson jumps in to finish the story, and we head back to the stage to hear Danko sing “It Makes No Difference,” his first in the movie on lead vocals. We also get a Garth Hudson sighting as he does a great sax solo. But we can't forget Robbie. He gets the spotlight treatment for a guitar solo on the song.

Other guests come out to sing, including Dr. John doing “Such a Night,” and Neil Young singing “Helpless.” Young's performance is memorable for two things: the one we hear and the one we don't see. What we don't see is cocaine hanging out of Young's nose – digitally removed in post-production. You have to pay attention, but as Young gets on stage, he tells Robertson, “Thank you for letting me do this.” Robertson responds: “Oh, shit, are you kidding? Are you kidding?” 

Joni Mitchell does some impressive background vocals, but when the camera pans to her, she's largely in the dark. The reason? The thought was to not have her visible – though we can clearly hear her distinct voice and make out her distinct face – as she would perform later with The Band and if people saw her, it would ruin the surprise. It doesn't make much sense, but everyone was high so that probably played a part in the strange decision.

More Robertson on not being on the road anymore and a great version of “Stage Fright” by Danko follows. We are then treated to the best interview segment of the movie and it comes from Manuel. He talks about the name of the group, saying in the late 60s that band names were strange. He makes up a couple of great psychedelic band names: “Chocolate Subway” and “Marshmallow Overcoat.” The members wanted the group to be called “The Crackers” or “The Honkies,” but no one else liked it. They were working with Dylan in and near Woodstock, New York, at the time they were searching for a name. Everyone referred to them as “The Band,” and the name stuck, Manuel says.

The film suddenly cuts to an MGM sound studio in Los Angeles in what many people say is the best part – The Band joined by the Staple Singers doing “The Weight.” Simply put: it is spectacular, and the way it is filmed is remarkable. Helm sings the first verse with the Staple Singers not shown. We see Robertson and Danko up front and that Manuel and Hudson have switched places with Manuel on organ and Hudson on piano. We then see Mavis Staples (their last name is Staples, but the band name is singular) taking the second verse and about halfway through it, the camera goes wide to show her sisters and father. Pops Staples singing the third verse, Danko the fourth verse as he did on the original with everyone harmonizing on the final verse. (See it for yourself.) 

The song itself is often mistaken for having a religious subtext as it takes place in Nazareth with characters named Luke, who's waiting on the Judgment Day, as well as Moses and the Devil. But it's actually about a town in Pennsylvania where Martin Guitars are still made to this day, and the strange people The Band knew there. The group performed the song during the concert, but it was replaced in the movie by the version done with the Staple Singers.

We get a little bit of Danko, Manuel and Robertson informally singing “Old Time Religion” off stage and off key followed by “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” one of The Band's better-known songs. This version with great horns is one of the best concert songs in cinematic history. Here it is.

Two of the more controversial segments follow. The first is Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.” He's great and I'm a longtime fan, but the only connection he has to The Band is that Robertson produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise earlier in 1976. As Diamond finishes, Robertson says, “Great song,” which is funny because he co-wrote it with Diamond. 

The second one has Scorsese asking about groupies when The Band toured. Manuel says, “I love them. That's probably why we've been on the road … not that I don't like the music.” Helm, visibly upset at the question, says to Scorsese, “I thought you weren't supposed to talk about it too much.” He then tells the director to talk about something else.

Back on stage, we get a couple of blues numbers. The first is “Mystery Train” by Paul Butterfield, followed by a killer performance of “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters with Butterfield playing the harmonica. Helms later wrote in his autobiography about how angry he was that a Vegas-style Diamond performed while he had to fight to get a spot on the show for Waters, who was a major influence on the group's members.

This section of the film features guest performers, including Eric Clapton, who does “Further On Up The Road.” As Clapton is playing the start of the song, his guitar strap falls off. He calls out “Rob” and Robertson immediately plays the lead perfectly without missing a note until Clapton is ready to resume. (It took me about a dozen viewings to recognize what happened.) The film returns to the MGM sound stage for Emmylou Harris singing “Evangeline,” a fantastic song Robertson wrote shortly before filming of the movie began. He plays electric guitar with Danko on violin, Helm on mandolin, Hudson on accordion, and Manuel on drums.

Back at Winterland, we get snippets of Hudson's brilliant organ playing on “Genetic Method” and “Chest Fever,” the latter is one of my favorite songs by the group. Robertson talks about Hudson's talent and how he was a classically trained musician. When The Band started they each had to pay Hudson $10 a week for lessons. Hudson couldn't tell his family he was in a rock-and-roll band so he said he was a paid music instructor. The Band play another great song, “Ophelia.”

Van Morrison, wearing a ridiculously-tight jumpsuit showing his expanding belly, is the second to last guest performer and he does an inspired version of “Caravan.” To end the cavalcade of stars is the biggest one of them all: Bob Dylan. There were problems with Dylan who only wanted two songs filmed because of a concert movie he was making. (Details of that to come later.)

The film's Winterland concert finale is “I Shall Be Released,” a beautiful song written by Dylan during The Basement Tapes era when he and The Band were in upstate New York. The song, with Manuel singing lead, is the final track on the group's 1968 landmark debut album, Music From Big Pink. Dylan released a version with a different tempo in 1971 on the second volume of his “greatest hits” collection.

The filming of the song is a mess with Manuel singing the second verse, but he's not shown; perhaps Scorsese's cameramen were in poor positions. Hawkins is on stage, but nowhere near a microphone so he is just sitting there. It's weird to see Diamond sharing a stage with Young, Morrison and Dylan. It's the end of the movie at the Winterland, but as Graham documented and as shown on The Last Waltz DVD, there was plenty more to follow, including two jam sessions. The quality of music on the jams isn't spectacular, but it's fascinating to see The Band, without Manuel, play with Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton.

The film's final interview is with Robertson who talks about life on the road and how you don't want to “press your luck.” He adds: “The road has taken a lot of the great ones: Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis (Joplin), Jimi Hendrix, Elvis. It's a goddamn impossible way of life.” It would also take Manuel and to a certain extent Danko and Helm.

The film closes on the MGM sound stage with Hudson on organ, Danko on stand-up bass, Robertson on a 12-string, Helm on mandolin and Manuel on slide guitar playing a new instrumental, “Theme From The Last Waltz.”

When The Band played their last concert, beautifully captured by Scorsese, the group was not leaving on top despite what the movie leads you to believe. While the five-man group was extraordinarily talented, they had become a nostalgia band by 1976. Any success they had in 1974 and 1975 was largely due to Dylan, who used them as his backing band at various high points during his career. The Band released two albums in 1975: Northern Lights – Southern Cross with a few good songs, and The Basement Tapes, which consisted of music made with Dylan primarily in 1967. A year earlier, they toured with Dylan, and played on his Planet Waves record. Except for the modest success of Northern Lights, The Band had done little of note on their own since 1970, when their third album Stage Fright was released. They were never able to recapture that brilliance again. By the time of their breakup, The Band was largely irrelevant in an industry that focused on disco and punk, and shunned many 1960s performers.

By 1976, Robbie Robertson, their guitarist and main songwriter, wanted the group to stop touring, and work only in the studio. That worked for The Beatles for a few years, but The Band wasn't The Beatles, and while the Fab Four's concerts were about 30 to 45 minutes long, The Band typically played for a couple of hours. Robertson's idea was ill conceived and the rest of the group objected. 

First, the other four members made most of their money touring. After Music From Big Pink, songwriting credits for original compositions were largely attributed to Robertson, despite objections from some of the others, primarily Helm. That meant that the big residual checks and publishing bucks went to Robertson. For the other four, the real money was in touring. As talented as Robertson was as a songwriter, he had dry spells, most notably between 1971's Cahoots and 1975's Northern Lights. It was so bad that the only studio album they released between those two was Moondog Matinee, a mediocre 1973 album of all cover songs.

But Robertson was insistent about not touring, and he expressed that repeatedly during the interview segments with Scorsese in the film. Though the rest of the group balked at the idea of quitting the road, Robertson somehow convinced them to break up in an elaborate show, which became The Last Waltz

It turned out that Robertson was correct about the dangers of life on the road: The Band reformed in 1983 without him. Manuel, whose hard living as a member of The Band concerned Robertson, committed suicide in 1986 after a small show in Florida. He was 42 years old. Danko, who battled drug and alcohol addictions, died in 1999 after a tour at the age of 56. Helm, also a hard drinker and a chain smoker who battled addictions, made it to 71 before dying of throat cancer in 2012.

The Last Waltz, filmed on Thanksgiving 1976 didn't hit theaters until April 26, 1978. It sat around that long for two reasons: Scorsese was busy with other films, including New York, New York, and Dylan negotiated a delay in order to have Renaldo and Clara, a nearly four-hour concert/documentary/dramatic vignette film from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, come out first. Renaldo premiered Jan. 25, 1978, and was a complete flop.

Scorsese was an unusual choice to direct, as he had never filmed a concert or documentary film before. He got the job because Jonathan Taplin, The Band's manager during their heyday, had produced Mean Streets, which Scorsese directed, and recommended him to The Band. Robertson and Scorsese, the latter had a cocaine abuse problem at the time, hit it off well, and developed a friendship and business relationship during and after filming. The other members, except for Danko, showed little interest in making any decision about the movie. It was the bond between Scorsese and Robertson that influenced the film's final product. The movie makes it look like the guitarist-songwriter was the leader despite the fact that Helm, Manuel and Danko sang 99 percent of the group's songs, and Helm had been the unofficial head dating back to when they were called Levon and the Hawks. Robertson doesn't sing lead on any song during the concert and did so on less than a handful of numbers during the group’s recording career. I don't object to top billing for Robertson (who ended up with a producer credit for the film). But Helm bitterly wrote in his autobiography that the movie makes it look like the four others are Robertson's sidemen.

While the film has some shortcomings such as choppy editing, too much of a focus on Robertson and not enough on the great music, it still makes for incredible viewing. At slightly less than two hours in length, it would have been even better had Scorsese added another hour. Woodstock is clearly the best rock film ever made, but The Last Waltz is right up there with Concert for Bangladesh for the second best. The Band’s performances showed why they were so widely respected for their talent and songs, particularly on their first three albums, and why people wanted to see them in concert. The guest performers don't disappoint, either, which is why this is an ideal film for the rock aficionado. 


  1. This has to be a passion.You spent a lot of time on that piece.

    1. I'm a huge fan of The Band and this film. As I wrote, I've seen in numerous times. This was one of those articles that has been in my head for a long time and I felt compelled to write it. I also received a lot of editing help from Ed and his friend, Jean, to make it flow smoothly.

      Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it.