Directed by concert-filming genius Martin Scorsese The Last Waltz is a lively and emotional look into The Band’s farewell show at Winterland in San Francisco. And what a show it was. Bill Graham, San Francisco legend, booked the show and brought together many of music’s finest to perform together. He also allegedly is the reason the show was filmed. Dylan protested the filming of the final few numbers, but Graham frustratedly exclaimed, “This is history! We’re filming.” Basically thank god for Bill Graham. And thank god for Scorsese who has the unique ability to rig up a concert hall with enough cameras to make the show come alive on screen. He brings a unique dynamism to concert films (see my review on Scorsese’s Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light). Like in Shine a Light, the film is primarily concert footage interspersed with some interviews with members of The Band.
The film opens with the charismatic lead guitarist and singer Robbie Robertson discussing and slightly lamenting The Band’s 16 year touring stint; they’re tired and ready for the end. Then we see The Band absolutely shred their greatest hits. Levon Helm is so incredibly soulful while Robertson is playful and fun. Shape I’m In, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Evangeline (sung with the ever wonderful Emmylou Harris), and Ophelia were highlights, but The Weight (The Staples) decidedly stole the show. After they finish the song one of the backup singers is caught on camera whispering “beautiful” barely into the mic proving that once again music is magic.
The best parts of the film though are likely the numbers featuring an impressive array of guest stars. Neil Young joins The Band onstage to sing Helpless while Joni Mitchell waits in the wings singing backup vocals. The song lends itself to an ensemble and sounds beautiful. Then Joni joins The Band onstage for an energetic and pitch perfect performance of Coyote which lends itself less to an ensemble cast but nonetheless is a treat. Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton both join The Band to perform (wonderfully) their own songs. Van The Man joins them later for an all star performance of Caravan which he totally sings the shit out of. Van works the crowd (and the band) and steals the show. I will admit that I am a lover of Van Morrison but had never really seen him perform and was distracted by his rather rodent like appearance.
And then . . . drumroll . . . BOB DYLAN! The Band gave Dylan the well deserved honor of closing out the show. Dylan comes on in what first appears to be a pink fedora but out of the light is white. He starts off with his signature blank stare and frown, but he warms up surprisingly quickly. He begins to smile at the members of The Band and even the audience. The glint in his eye is obvious; he’s having fun. I’d actually never seen our sultry poet look so happy performing, and it made me really really happy. In Dylan’s autobiography, Chronicles pt. 1, he talks about not enjoying performing and being self conscious especially when he was younger. I think that being onstage with other well known and wonderful musicians gave him the space to enjoy performing. Dylan gives a show stopping performance of Forever Young and then jams out with The Band to a punched up Baby Let Me Follow You Down. So freakin cool!
Finally the whole cast (plus Ronnie Wood and RIngo!!!) comes onstage to join Dylan and The Band for I Shall Be Released. It is a magical moment seeing so many greats side by side—Joni singing with Neil Young, Dylan with Van Morrison etc etc.
The best part of the film is perhaps watching the members of The Band watch their guests perform. Seeing the wonder in Robertson’s eyes as Dylan sings Forever Young, watching Rick Danko smile like a kid seeing Joni, seeing Levon’s childlike reverence for Muddy Waters. When you think about it it’s remarkably selfless (or confident?) that The Band decided to bring so many incredible musicians—all who totally hold their own and steal the show—onstage with them for their last show. I think for The Band it has always been about the big sound of togetherness. Their songs (e.g. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) lend themselves to a big, loud, joyous ensembles of singers. Even their name allows for an ensemble of stragglers and solo artists who join the band just for the night.