The reasons why The Last Waltz has enjoyed adoring praise since its release are myriad. The documentary captures the final performance of the Band, the seminal ’60s/’70s rock group that first caught notice as Bob Dylan’s backup outfit when the folksinger went electric; in addition to being critical darlings for their artistic integrity and rootsy grooves, the Band had the rare grace to step off the public stage before they wore out their welcome. Thus, the movie is not only a compendium of passionate performances, but also a record of musical history. Additionally, the Band invited many of their famous friends to join them onstage, so The Last Waltz features killer numbers by Dylan, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and others. Beyond the stars and the tunes, however, The Last Waltz has something other ’70s music movies don’t: Martin Scorsese.
Because the fast-rising auteur was a close friend (and onetime roommate) of the Band’s principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson, Scorsese was a natural choice to oversee the Band’s grandiose vision of a filmed farewell concert. And because Scorsese is among the most musically sensitive filmmakers of his generation, he seized the opportunity by creating an opulent visual atmosphere. Lighting San Francisco’s Winterland Arena like a soundstage (and supplementing concert footage with artsy flourishes shot on an actual soundstage), Scorsese approached The Last Waltz like a feature instead of a straight documentary. Therefore, an overall artistic vision is evident in every scene—Scorsese set out to elevate the feeling of a concert into something mythic, defining his subjects as magical figures emerging from darkness to make joyous noises.
To realize this elaborate visual scheme, Scorsese enlisted several gifted cinematographers (including Michael Chapman, László Kovács, Hiro Narita, and Vilmos Zsigmond), thus ensuring consistently elegant camerawork. Yet the film also has a personal quality, thanks to unvarnished interviews with Robertson and his bandmates that Scorsese conducted in a Malibu recording studio; one senses the presence of Scorsese the fan and Scorsese the historian, not just Scorsese the artiste. Some have griped that the filmmaker actually put too distinct a stamp onto this movie, placing style over substance, but an argument can be made that Scorsese’s choice to complement the Band’s handmade aesthetic with a sophisticated visual treatment created a dynamic juxtaposition.
No matter how you regard the presentation, though, it’s hard to argue with the music. Beyond performing their own classic songs (“The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and more), the Band provide thunderous backing for Dylan (“Forever Young”), Young (“Helpless”), and the film’s other guests. From the simple charms of the Band’s ingratiating music to the extravagant flair of Scorsese’s cinematic embellishments, The Last Waltz is filled with rich textures.
The Last Waltz: GROOVY