Martin Scorsese’s iconic concert film The Last Waltz is one of the most critically acclaimed and widely loved of all time. When it was released in 1978, it seemed to herald the end of an era. To this day, the film is regarded by many as the culmination of one of the most fruitful, revolutionary, and mythological periods in music history, featuring not only The Band but also a whole host of other era-defining artists. Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan all took to the stage for what is an undeniably joyous celebration of music-making.
But here’s the thing: as much as it pains me to say, to call The Last Waltz the best concert film of all time would be to ignore the likes of Let It Be (1970), Woodstock (1970), and, notably, Talking Heads’ conceptual triumph, Stop Making Sense (1984). So, before any judgements are made, I think it’s worth putting The Last Waltz under the microscope.
It should be said that The Last Waltz is incredibly well filmed. Scorsese effectively revolutionised the concert film, choosing to place a heightened emphasis on stylistic and aesthetic aspects, meaning that, unlike most concert films of its day, The Last Waltz, comes up gleaming. It is an utterly immersive experience that begins with that iconic opening title: “This movie should be played loud.” From there, every move Scorsese makes is to the benefit of the senses, helping the cinema audience, those detached observers, feel as though they were amongst the whooping, hollering crowd, whom he makes the brilliant decision to keep in utter darkness so there is no real separation from the live audience and the people watching Scorsese’s captured footage.
Similarly, Scorsese does an incredible job of capturing the carnivalesque atmosphere of The Band’s 1976 performance at Winterland Ballroom. From the charmingly ill-fitting opening theme to the stunning wide-angle shots of the ballroom’s opulent interior and the roster of guest stars, there is a hint of the travelling circus about The Last Waltz; something which feels all the more appropriate when you consider that Robbie Roberston grew up around the circus as a child. And although The Last Waltz isn’t exactly a traditionally conceptual concert film, The Band clearly took deliberate steps to create a tracklist that celebrated their ‘travelling band’ persona, with songs like ‘Life is A Carnival’, ‘Stage Fright’, and ‘Caravan’.
But here lies the nub of my issue with The Last Waltz: although it was billed as a farewell concert for a group whose very name suggests comradeship, it feels, at times, more like a celebration of Robbie Roberston and not The Band as a unit. Levon Helm himself found Scorsese’s approach to the film to be entirely unpalatable, claiming that Robertson and Scorsese conspired to make Roberston look like the bandleader with the rest of the group acting as his side-men.
Scorsese’s camera certainly seems to favour Robertson more than anyone else, consistently returning to what Helm described as: “long, loving close-ups [of Robertson’s] heavily made-up face [and] expensive haircut.” Oh, and that microphone that Robertson is so earnestly singing into throughout the performance? Yep, switched off. It was all for show.
I guess it just feels a little rich that a film that so sensitively traces The Band’s long and tiring road to success, and which seems to celebrate authenticity above all else, can feel so artificial. Why, for example, did Neil Diamond need to make an appearance? The roster of artists who appeared on The Last Waltz was intended to bring together all the musicians who were close to or influenced by The Band. The only connection The Band had with Diamond, however, was that (surprise, surprise) Robbie Robertson was producing his upcoming album. That’s not even to mention the removal of a huge smudge of cocaine trailing from Neil Young’s nostrils which had to be removed in post-production.
So, I suppose my main qualm with The Last Waltz is that it reveals something about the countercultural era I’d rather ignore: that, despite making a huge fuss about bohemian ideals like truth, revolution, and authenticity, by the end of the ’70s, that counterculture had been absorbed by the mainstream and transformed into a business lie any other. In that sense, The Last Waltz certainly marks the end of an era, but not in the way so many people think.