The Last Waltz
|The Last Waltz|
|Directed by||Martin Scorsese|
|Music by||The Band|
(with special guests)
|Distributed by||United Artists|
The Last Waltz was a concert by the Canadian-American rock group The Band, held on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz was advertised as The Band's "farewell concert appearance", and the concert saw The Band joined by more than a dozen special guests, including their previous employers Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan as well as Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young. The musical director for the concert was The Band's original record producer, John Simon.
The concert was produced and managed by Bill Graham and was filmed by director Martin Scorsese, who made it into a documentary of the same title, released in 1978. Jonathan Taplin, who was The Band's tour manager from 1969 to 1972 and later produced Scorsese's film Mean Streets, suggested that Scorsese would be the ideal director for the project and introduced Robbie Robertson and Scorsese. Taplin served as executive producer. The film features concert performances, intermittent song renditions shot on a studio soundstage, and interviews by Scorsese with members of The Band. The soundtrack and DVD were later released.
The Last Waltz is hailed as one of the greatest documentary concert films ever made. In 2019, the film was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Beginning with a title card saying "This film should be played loud!" the concert documentary covers The Band's influences and career. The group—Rick Danko on bass, violin and vocals; Levon Helm on drums, mandolin and vocals; Garth Hudson on keyboards and saxophone; songwriter Richard Manuel on keyboards, percussion and vocals; and guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson.
Various other artists perform with The Band: Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. Genres covered include blues, rock and roll, New Orleans R&B, Tin Pan Alley pop, folk and rock. Further genres are explored in segments filmed later on a sound stage with Emmylou Harris (country) and the Staple Singers (soul and gospel).
The film begins with The Band performing the last song of the evening, their cover version of the Marvin Gaye hit "Don't Do It", as an encore. The film then flashes back to the beginning of the concert, and follows it more or less chronologically. The Band is backed by a large horn section and performs many of its hit songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek", "Stage Fright", and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
The live songs are interspersed with studio segments and interviews conducted by director Martin Scorsese in which The Band's members reminisce about the group's history. Robertson talks about Hudson joining the band on the condition that the other members pay him $10 a week each for music lessons. The classically trained Hudson could then tell his parents that he was a music teacher instead of merely a rock and roll musician. Robertson also describes the surreal experience of playing in a burnt-out nightclub owned by Jack Ruby.
Manuel recalls that some of the early names for The Band included "the Honkies", and "the Crackers". Because they were simply referred to as "the band" by Dylan and their friends and neighbors in Woodstock, New York, they figured that was just what they would call themselves.
A recurring theme brought up in the interviews with Robertson is that the concert marks an end of an era for The Band, that after 16 years on the road, it is time for a change. "That's what The Last Waltz is: sixteen years on the road. The numbers start to scare you," Robertson tells Scorsese. "I mean, I couldn't live with twenty years on the road. I don't think I could even discuss it."
The idea for a farewell concert came about early in 1976 after Richard Manuel was seriously injured in a boating accident. Robbie Robertson then began giving thought to leaving the road, envisioning The Band becoming a studio-only band, similar to the Beatles' decision to stop playing live shows in 1966. He was also concerned about the negative effects of being on the road too long:
I had become suspicious of the road. Look at what happened to this guy. Look at what happened to them. These people who got crazy when they got on the road. This was not a healthy thing. I was telling the guys in the Band, "I like the music we make together. But I don't want to go out there with it anymore. . . . We're not learning from it. We're not growing from it.
Though the other band members did not agree with Robertson's decision, the concert was set at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom, where The Band had made its debut as a group in 1969. Originally, The Band was to perform on its own, but then the notion of inviting Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan was hatched and the guest list grew to include other performers. Robertson wanted to invite people who had been a strong influence on their music, people who represented various music styles, including New Orleans rock and roll, English blues, and Chicago blues. When he called Bill Graham, he said he wanted the concert to be a kind of celebration, the end of a chapter.
With only six weeks before the planned date, Robertson called director Martin Scorsese, who he knew loved rock music and had worked at the Woodstock Festival, to see if he would direct it as a concert documentary. When he mentioned some of the performers they had lined up, Scorsese reacted quickly: "Van Morrison? Are you kidding? I have to do it. I don't have a choice."
Promoted and organized by Bill Graham, whose home turf was Winterland and who had a long association with The Band, the concert was an elaborate affair, with over 300 workers. Starting at 5:00 p.m., the audience of 5,000 was served turkey dinners There was ballroom dancing with music by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel, Diane Di Prima, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan and Freewheelin' Frank gave readings.
The Band started its concert at around 9:00 p.m., opening with "Up on Cripple Creek", during the wind-down of which vocalist/drummer Levon Helm called out a humorous "I sure wish I could yodel!" This was followed by eleven more of The Band's most popular songs, including "The Shape I'm In", "This Wheel's on Fire" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". They were backed by a large horn section with charts arranged by Allen Toussaint and other musicians.
They were then joined by a succession of guest artists, starting with Ronnie Hawkins. As the Hawks, The Band served as Hawkins' backing band in the early 1960s. Dr. John took a seat at the piano for his signature song, "Such a Night". He then switched to guitar and joined Bobby Charles on "Down South in New Orleans". A blues set was next with harmonica player Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, pianist Pinetop Perkins and Eric Clapton. As Clapton was taking his first solo on "Further on Up the Road", his guitar strap came loose. Clapton said "Rob!" and Robertson picked up the solo without missing a beat.
Neil Young followed, singing "Helpless" with backing vocals by Joni Mitchell who remained off stage. According to Robertson's commentary on The Last Waltz DVD, this was so her later appearance in the show would have more of an impact. Mitchell came on after Young and sang three songs, two with the backing of Dr. John on congas.
Neil Diamond was next, introducing his "Dry Your Eyes" by saying, "I'm only gonna do one song, but I'm gonna do it good." Robertson had also produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise the same year and co-wrote "Dry Your Eyes", which during the concert he hailed as a "great song".
Canadians Young and Mitchell were then invited back out to help The Band perform "Acadian Driftwood", an ode to the Acadians of Canadian history. The Band then performed a short set of some more of its songs before Bob Dylan came on stage to lead his former backing band through four songs.
The Band and all its guests, with the addition of Ringo Starr on drums and Ronnie Wood on guitar, then sang "I Shall Be Released" as a closing number. Dylan, who wrote the song, and Manuel, whose falsetto rendition had made the song famous on Music from Big Pink, shared lead vocals, although Manuel cannot be clearly seen in the film and switched between his normal and falsetto voices between verses.
Two loose jam sessions then formed. "Jam #1" featured The Band minus Richard Manuel playing with Neil Young, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton on guitar, Dr. John on piano, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and Ringo Starr on drums. It was followed by "Jam #2" with the same personnel minus Robertson and Danko. Stephen Stills, who showed up late, took a guitar solo and Carl Radle joined on bass.
The Band then came out at around 2:15 a.m. to perform an encore, "Don't Do It". It was the last time the group performed under the name "The Band" with its classic lineup. The five joined on stage at a Rick Danko concert in 1978. The Band reformed without Robertson in 1980 and headlined at The Roxy in Los Angeles with Scottish group Blue supporting, guests were Dr. John and Joe Cocker. Rick Danko later performed at various Los Angeles venues along with Blue and it was at his invitation they recorded their LA Sessions album at Shangri-La Studios.
Robertson initially wanted to record the concert on 16 mm film. He recruited Martin Scorsese to direct based on his use of music in Mean Streets. Under Scorsese, the film grew into a full-scale studio production with seven 35 mm cameras.
The cameras were operated by several cinematographers, including Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). The stage and lighting were designed by Boris Leven, who had been the production designer on such musical films as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. With Bill Graham's assistance, the set from the San Francisco Opera's production of La traviata was rented as a backdrop for the stage. Crystal chandeliers were also hung over the stage.
John Simon, who ran the rehearsals for the show, would give Scorsese details as to who sang what and who soloed when for each song. Scorsese meticulously storyboarded the songs, setting up lighting and camera cues to fit the lyrics of the songs. But despite his planning, in the rigors of the live concert setting, with the loud rock music and the hours spent filming the show, there were unscripted film reloads and camera malfunctions. It was not possible for all songs to be covered. At one point, all the cameras, except László Kovács', were shut down for a scheduled film reload as Muddy Waters was to perform "Mannish Boy". Kovács, frustrated by Scorsese's constant instructions, had removed his communications headset earlier in the evening and had not heard the orders to stop filming. As Scorsese frantically tried to get other cameras up, Kovács was already rolling and able to capture the iconic song by the blues legend. "It was just luck," Scorsese recalled in the DVD documentary, The Last Waltz Revisited.
Notably omitted from the film is Stephen Stills, who only performed in a jam session. Also omitted were performances by poets Lenore Kandel, Robert Duncan, Freewheelin' Frank Reynolds, Emmett Grogan, Diane DiPrima and Sweet William. Both jam sessions were omitted from the film entirely.
Unexpected negotiations with Dylan
While Bob Dylan had agreed to perform in the concert, which was being filmed, he decided during the intermission that he did not want his own performance filmed after all. He feared it might detract from his film, Renaldo and Clara, which he directed during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which ended months earlier. However, Warner Bros. had agreed to finance "Last Waltz" only if Dylan would be in it.
Levon Helm said that Scorsese "went nuts" upon hearing that Dylan changed his mind, while "Robbie became totally pale." More than a million dollars would have been lost without Dylan's performance in the film, said Helm. Jonathan Taplin, The Band's manager and producer of the film, was also beside himself, knowing that he had no influence over Dylan. He, along with Robertson and Scorsese, then went to Graham: "Bill. You're going to have to go and talk to Bob." They knew that Graham had worked with Dylan before, such as during Graham's SNACK Benefit Concert a year earlier. They wanted Graham to explain to Dylan how dire the situation was, said Helm.
As Graham walked toward Dylan's dressing room, he tried to reassure them, "Don't worry, I'm gonna make it happen." As they waited, there were frantic backstage negotiations between Graham and Dylan, recalls Helm:
Man, they were all biting their nails. I think Bill really pleaded with Bob for us, for the sake of the history of it all. . . He was in there for a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an hour. No one could believe this. With about five minutes left, word came down that the last two songs in Bob's part of the show could be filmed, and only the last two. Bill Graham saved their asses that night.
Robertson also assured Dylan that the concert film's release would be delayed until after his film. Taplin later said that "Bill did the greatest thing that night. In a sense, he really saved the day for us."
At one point during Dylan's performance, Robertson states that Lou Kemp, a close friend of Dylan, said 'We're not filming this.' And Bill just said, 'Get out of here, or I'll kill you'" Graham told him "This is history, don't mess with it!" Kemp backed off.  To add to the confusion, Scorsese said that when Dylan got on stage, the sound was so loud he didn't know what to shoot: "Fortunately, we got our cues right and we shot the two songs that were used in the film."
According to Kemp, "More or less, Bob got his way. I think they shot a little more than he wanted but they didn't shoot as much as they wanted. As it ended up, everybody came out whole. Robertson was also satisfied:
Oh, we'll go through all this bullshit and in the end, we'll shoot it. I knew the game very well. Thank God for Bill Graham. In the end, it was shot. And it looked staggering. He looked amazing in the film, Bobby Dylan. Almost like a Christ figure. A Christ in a white hat. I mean, what more could you ask for?
Scorsese has said that during this period, he was using cocaine heavily. Drugs were present in large quantities during the concert. A smudge of cocaine on Neil Young's nose was obscured in post-production.
Following the concert, Scorsese filmed for several days on an MGM studio soundstage, with The Band, the Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris. The Band's performance of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers was included in the film instead of the concert version. The Band and Harris performed "Evangeline", which was also included in the film. Interviews with group members were conducted by Scorsese at The Band's Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, California. Additionally, Robertson composed The Last Waltz Suite, parts of which were used as a film score. Finally, according to musical director John Simon, during post-production the live recording was altered to clean up "playing mistakes, out-of tune singing, bad horn-balance in the remote truck. Only Levon’s part was retained in its entirety."
During the editing process, Scorsese and Robertson became friends, and frequently collaborated on further projects, with Robertson acting as music producer and consultant on Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed and Shutter Island.
More than being a collection of impressively filmed and virtuosically mixed 'live' songs, "The Last Waltz" ranks as probably the finest record of a rock concert ever put on film.
The film has been hailed critically, listed among the greatest concert films. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 98% based on 48 reviews, with an average rating of 8.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Among one of, if not the best rock movie ever made, The Last Waltz is a revealing, electrifying view of the classic band at their height." Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington calls it "the greatest rock concert movie ever made – and maybe the best rock movie, period". Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press comments that "This is one of the great movie experiences." Total Film considers it "the greatest concert film ever shot". Janet Maslin of The New York Times gave it a negative review, stating that it "articulates so little of the end-of-an-era feeling it hints at ... that it's impossible to view the Last Waltz as anything but an also-ran." However, The New York Times in 2003 placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list, while Rolling Stone called it the "Greatest Concert Movie of All Time".
Music critic Robert Christgau gives the soundtrack a "B+", saying "the movie improves when you can't see it." He praises the blues numbers by Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield, the horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint, and the "blistering if messy" guitar duet by Robertson and Eric Clapton. Film critic Roger Ebert awarded the film three stars out of a possible four, noting that although "the film is such a revealing document of a time," it also suggested the musicians had reached the end of their careers.
Criticism by Levon Helm
Levon Helm, in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel's on Fire, expresses serious reservations about Scorsese's handling of the film, claiming that Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (who produced the film) conspired to make The Band look like Robbie Robertson's sidemen. He states that Robertson, who is depicted singing powerful backing vocals, was actually singing into a microphone that was turned off throughout most of the concert (a typical practice during their live performances).
Helm was also dissatisfied with Manuel and Hudson's minimal screen time and the fact most of the band members never received any money for the various home videos, DVDs and soundtracks released by Warner Bros. after the project.
Appreciation by Robbie Robertson
We saluted one another like we had just pulled off one of the best musical celebrations in rock 'n' roll history. It really, really does not get any better than this.
Robertson said he was relieved when the concert ended, as he was constantly worried that something would go wrong, as it did when Dylan suddenly backed out of being filmed. To all the people involved, he said "Thank God we got through it." He recalls that all the cameramen were hugging one another, feeling they had succeeded in capturing a unique rock concert on film, all under the direction of Martin Scorcese, one of the film industry's leading directors.
He also thanked Graham for producing the concert at Winterland, where The Band had its debut in 1969:
I remember seeing Bill and I was thinking, "God, you did it, Bill. Well, everybody did it." But Bill did it. We did it in his home. Like, "Whose house are we going to shoot at? Bill's house." Because it was his house, I felt in my heart like he had really done this thing. . . He was proud of it. and I was proud of him for being proud of it.
Home video releases
For the concert's 25th anniversary in 2002, the film was remastered and a new theatrical print was made for a limited release to promote the release of the DVD and four-CD box set of the film soundtrack. It opened in San Francisco's Castro Theatre, with the release later expanded to 15 theaters.
The DVD features a commentary track by Robertson and Scorsese, a featurette, Revisiting The Last Waltz, and a gallery of images from the concert, the studio filming and the film premiere. A bonus scene is footage of "Jam #2", which is cut short because they had run out of replacement sound synchronizers for the cameras after ten hours of continuous filming.
The original 2002 DVD release was packaged as a "special edition". In addition to the extra features on the disc, the Amaray case came in a foil-embossed cardboard sleeve, and inside was an eight-page booklet, featuring a five-page essay by Robertson entitled "The End of a Musical Journey". Also included was a US$5 rebate coupon for the four-CD box set. In 2005, the DVD was re-issued with different artwork and stripped of the outer foil packaging, inner booklet and coupon; the disc's contents remained unchanged.
In 2006, The Last Waltz was among the first eight titles released in Sony's high definition Blu-ray format. The soundtracks on the Blu-ray release consist of an uncompressed 5.1 Linear PCM track, a very high fidelity format, and a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The original soundtrack album was a three-LP album released on April 16, 1978 (later as a two-disc CD). It has many songs not in the film, including "Down South in New Orleans" with Bobby Charles and Dr. John on guitar, "Tura Lura Lural (That's an Irish Lullaby)" by Van Morrison, "Life is a Carnival" by The Band, and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" by Bob Dylan. John Casado designed the packaging and logotype trademark.
In 2002, a four-CD box set was released, as was a DVD-Audio edition. Robbie Robertson produced the album, remastering all the songs. The set includes 16 previously unreleased songs from the concert, as well as takes from rehearsals. Among the additions are Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" by Muddy Waters, the concert version of "The Weight", "Jam #1" and "Jam #2" in their entirety, and extended sets with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
The soundtrack recordings underwent post-concert production featuring heavy use of overdubbing and re-sequencing. Bootleg collectors have circulated an original line recording of the concert as a more accurate and complete document of the event. It includes songs not available in the film or the official album releases, including "Georgia on My Mind", "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", the complete "Chest Fever" and the live version of "Evangeline".
|German Music DVD (Media Control)||66|
|Swedish Music DVD (Sverigetopplistan)||2|
|UK Music Video DVD (OCC)||1|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||3× Platinum||150,000*|
* Sales figures based on certification alone.
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- "Sveriges Officiella Topplista". Sverigetopplistan Chart (in Swedish). sverigetopplistan.se. Retrieved August 21, 2015. Note: Search for "The Band", then press "Sök" and look for "THE LAST WALTZ", press "VISA" to see the chart positions.
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