The Last Waltz: Reviewed

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.

I’m Not There: Reviewed

This film is required viewing for anyone who even KINDA likes Bob Dylan, folk music, and/or great cinema. Ironically and hypocritically my dear father had been telling me to watch this film for years, and I’d been blowing him off until the other night my friend Kavi also demanded I watch it. Two was enough, and I caved.

Directed by Todd Haynes, I’m Not There breathlessly and beautifully chronicles bits and pieces of Dylan’s life. Six different exceedingly talented and brilliant actors play Dylan in the film, an approach that highlights the many faces and lives of Dylan, who is, in my mind, the most complicated and also frequently over-simplified artist of our time.

The different Dylans show different parts of our greatest poet: the troubled husband and father, the eager child, the tortured artist, the born again Christian, the lonely mountain man escaping life, and the eerily wise beyond his years storyteller. Cate Blanchett, interestingly, plays the most recognizable Dylan during the time before and after Dylan goes electric. She gracefully inhabits a struggling, awkward, self-conscious and unhappy young Dylan. Each Dylan shows us something different and often things previously unknown.

The film-making is spectacularly gorgeous. Each Dylan shows us different colors of life. Young Dylan lives in a yellow-y dreamworld while the tortured musician lives, of course, in black and white. The camera work is equally intriguing and unique, panning over the audience and pausing frequently to show us the candid expressions of random onlookers and fans.

And the music of course. The Dylan songs chosen are so well chosen that the film risks coming off as a little cheesy in certain moments, but ultimately the songs enhance both the literal messages and the artistry of the film. Example: Simple Twist of Fate is playing and Dylan and his wife, Claire, are at the park which cues, “They sat together in the park / As the evening sky grew dark / She looked at him and he felt a spark / Tingle to his bones / ‘Twas then he felt alone.” The scene changes and Claire is alone at a party and Dylan is paying her very little attention which cues, “People tell me it’s a sin / To know and feel too much within / I still believe she was my twin / But I lost the ring / She was born in spring / But I was born too late / Blame it on a simple twist of fate.” As I said, risks being obvious, but ultimately works well.

Just like Bob Dylan this film is anything but predictable. It takes a windy road through Dylan’s life that surprised me at every turn. Watch this film!

Shine a Light: Reviewed

Summer roc docs guilty pleasure trip continued tonight with Shine a Light, a film directed by Scorsese documenting the Stones’ 2006 Beacon Theatre performance. Unlike usual, this time I watched the doc not on the treadmill but with my lovely parents. We were all freaking floored. They’d seen it when it came out in theaters too but were still floored!

Scorsese managed to rig that whole damn theatre with cameras effectively making a 2 hour concert film a dynamic work of art. Scorsese shows behind the scenes footage of him and his crew as well, a thrill for Scorsese lovers and fans of his thick rimmed glasses. The film is interspersed with incredibly amusing footage of the Stones being interviewed and mouthing off to Japanese and German interviewers. Scorsese expertly shows the youthfulness, sexiness, and joyful spirit of Mick, Keith and Ronnie too.

Mick shines brightest during the film/show. The camera is mostly focused on him and his positively ECSTATIC dancing. Everyone knows Mick has groovy moves, but you kinda forget how incredible he is. He’s also a lot older now so we don’t expect as much. He definitely delivers though. He appears positively possessed with the ghosts of blues and rock n roll past. I found myself hypnotized by his sashaying walks and shaking hips and also the way he interacts with the audience. You keep wondering to yourself how he KEEPS DANCING. It’s glorious! I’ll admit that after the film ended I was dancing around like a lunatic trying to imitate Mick’s crazy hand moves and airy moonwalk.

The Keith Ronnie dynamic is also a highpoint of the film. Scorsese’s many cameras do a wonderful job picking up every wink and gesture. The viewer feels in on the action.

The film/concert also has some beautiful guest appearances! Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera grace the stage and sing the shit out of a few songs with Mick. Buddy absolutely kills and vibes with Keith making you thank god again for the blues.

I loved every minute. 

Rock Docs Guilty Pleasure Trip

I am on summer vacation. I do actually have a job at a very nice jewelry store and have been running 4ish miles every day, but still I find myself with extra time on my hands. So I’ve been watching a lot of music documentaries. I highly recommend spending excess time watching documentaries instead of (god I’m pretentious and annoying) lesser TV like the Bachelor or Keeping Up With the Kardashians (full disclosure: I watch the Bachelor on the treadmill).

Anyways. Watching docs is wonderful: you feel less guilt about sitting back and watching television because you’re learning interesting stuff!

In the past few days I’ve watched Shut Up and Play the Hits, Janis: Little Girl Blue and Tom Petty: Runnin’ Down a Dream. I recommend all three. The former doc chronicles LCD Soundsystem’s final show at Madison Square Garden and the lead-up to the show. It’s well done. Interesting filming of James Murphy and his english bull dog, great video of the show itself, and a nice slowish pace. It is a bit weird watching the documentary now knowing that LCD Soundsystem will reunite to play Coachella and go on a “back from the dead” tour (yea, I’m pretty sure they’re actually calling it that). Regardless, I enjoyed and think you will too!

The Janis Joplin and the Tom Petty documentaries were more typical rock docs. Both chronicle the complete life of the artist. The Janis doc was more personal and tended to psychoanalyze Joplin in a way that got a bit tiresome, but, regardless, it gave a great sense of her life as an artist and young woman. The Petty documentary was pretty awesome. It is four hours long so be ready for that. Who knew that Tom Petty has literally played and sang with EVERYONE. So cool. The documentary also doesn’t mind showing the full song which I like because just snippets is dumb.

UPDATE: I watched the CNN miniseries “The Sixties” this morning while running. I watched the British Invasion episode, the “Times They Are A-Changing” episode (about the women’s liberation movement not music), and the final episode which is also about music. Highly recommended! A bit disjointed perhaps but thoroughly entertaining. I’m moving on to “The Seventies” next.  (All on Netflix!)