Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XX: The Last Waltz

The Last Waltz (1978) ****
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Mardik Martin.
Featuring: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Martin Scorsese.

There is a sadness that hangs over Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which is somewhat strange since it should a celebration. The Band is giving their last concert ever, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 because after 16 years on the road, they have simply had a enough. “The numbers start to scare you. 16 years is a long time. I don’t know I could do 20” Robbie Robertson, the guitar player, says to Scorsese. The interviews in the film – that we glimpse in segments that usually only last a few minutes between the songs being performed – change the overall tone of the movie. Even when the members recall happy times – there is an air of sadness to them. They’ve told these stories too many times before. And they are tired. More then anything else, they are simply worn out. The Band says what they wanted The Last Waltz to be was a celebration – it almost seems like a memorial service.

Roger Ebert pointed this out in his review, and uses it as a criticism towards the movie. I feel just about the opposite of Ebert. It’s the sadness in The Last Waltz which elevates it above nearly all other concert documentaries I can think of (Woodstock, which Scorsese helped to edit, is still the best, but this is probably second). The Band was never the happiest group in the world anyway. Perhaps their biggest hit, The Weight, has the refrain “and you put the load right on me”. I’m still not entirely sure what the hell that song means, but it certainly isn’t a happy one.

The Last Waltz really is about the end of an era. The Band was together on the road for 16 years before they decided to call it quits. In the ‘60s, it was fun. They travelled around – on their own or with Dylan – and had fun. There was always booze and drugs and women. Lots and lots of women. But sooner are later, the weight, as it were, pushed down on them. Robertson in particular seems especially ready to get out of the business of being a rock star.

Having said all of that, The Last Waltz is hardly a depressing experience. It is filled with some of the greatest rock music ever recorded. Not just the music of The Band itself, which would be enough, but also some great songs by some of the eras biggest acts. Some of them – like Neil Young singing Helpless, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton seem to fit right in with the Band. Others, like Neil Diamond dressed like a pimp, or Van Morrison flashy as always, don’t, and yet their music sounds great. When Dylan finally comes out and does a few songs with the Band, the movie hits it’s emotional high point. Singing Forever Young, an ironic choice considering that none of them are young any more, the movie hits another level.

Scorsese has always been a meticulous planner, and he did not want to simply settle for a typical concert movie. He wanted to storyboard the entire show. He got set lists and design the lighting cues to interact with the Band perfectly. He assembled of team of great cinematographers – Michael Chapman leading the likes of Bobby Byrne, Laszlo Kovacs, David Myers, Hiro Narita, Michael Watkins and Vilmos Zsigmond – and had everything mapped out to capture just what he wanted. The Band is photographed is luscious light, sometimes under single spotlights, and the audience is basically ignored. You don’t need the audience – you are the audience – what matters is the performers, and Scorsese’s cameras get up close and personal with them. Strange coincidences happen, like when all but when camera ran out of film during Muddy Waters’ song, so most of it is just that one angel – and yet somehow even that works.

It’s strange that Scorsese made this film when he did. Coming at a low point in his own life, when he was convinced he was never going to make another movie again, the film becomes not just about the end of the Band, but the end of something else entirely. When 30 years later, Scorsese would make Shine a Light with the Rolling Stones, it represented the opposite of this film. That film was about the joy of performing – even after 40+ years together, the Stones still love to perform. The Band couldn’t take any more than 16. The Last Waltz is one of the greatest concert films ever made because it’s about more than “just the music” –which is great. It’s about life and celebrity, and the sometimes painful drudgery that comes along with both.

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