Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

14 July 2011

Revisiting The Last Waltz (1978)

I saw The Last Waltz when it first came out in 1978. I can’t say that I was the most astute viewer at that point, but as a fan of The Band and the unbelievable line-up of other musicians in the film, I loved it. I loved it for the music. I loved it for Robbie Robertson’s great-god-almighty good looks. I loved it because Lawrence Ferlinghetti read a poem in it. In the thirty-odd years since it was released, I’ve watched a lot of movies, picked up a couple of degrees, and taught a few film classes; so it was with a little trepidation that I decided to revisit this old favorite. I should confess at this point that of late I’ve felt the need for the occasional foray into nostalgic pleasure as an antidote to an extended bout of melancholy or whatever it is that strikes a person in late middle age when suddenly their life seems to jump off the tracks and they find themselves asking, “What the fuck happened and what am I supposed to do now?” If I were a heterosexual male, financially solvent, and far less given to introspection, I would probably buy a Harley and update my profile on Facebook with pictures of myself straddling the aforementioned hog and crossing my arms in that funny way that almost makes it look like you still have nice, bulgy biceps. But I’m not. So instead, I’m revisiting some of the cultural touchstones of my youth to see if they still have the power to infuse a little je ne sais quoi into my life (or at the very least, help put the present in perspective). And so I decided to take another look at The Last Waltz.

It’s no secret that The Last Waltz is one of the best rockumentaries ever made, maybe even the best. It’s a beautifully crafted film, directed by Martin Scorsese, with cinematography by Michael Chapman, and stunningly evocative set designs by Boris Leven. It documents what had to have been one of the greatest concerts in rock and roll history, including performances by everyone from Bob Dylan to Ringo Starr, from Joni Mitchell to Dr. John, from Muddy Waters to Neil Diamond. And then there’s Van Morrison, kickin’ it (literally) in a skin-tight, rhinestoned, aubergine outfit, looking for all the world like a bedazzled leprechaun. 

Commemorating, as it does, the end of a musical era, The Last Waltz is both celebration and elegy. This is conveyed beautifully through the pace of the film, which alternates between exuberance and introspection, moving from raucously energetic concert footage to quieter, more downbeat interview segments. Additional musical performances with the Staples Singers and Emmylou Harris, which were recorded some time after the concert on a stark MGM soundstage, provide an eerily liminal counterpoint. The combination of these three elements is a study in filmmaking technique: from the intimacy of the interview segments, to the fluid crane shots of the scenes on the MGM soundstage, to the dynamic coverage of the actual concert. The DVD commentaries give fascinating insights into the technical challenges of filming a six-hour live concert that pushed cameras, lights, and crews to their limits. Additional constraints were put on the camera crew by the physical limitations of the aging Wonderland ballroom and the importance of not being so obtrusive as to disrupt the audience’s experience of the concert. Yet somehow it all works beautifully. So much so that, without listening to the commentary, you’d never imagine that the remarkable three-minute close-up of Muddy Waters singing “Mannish Boy” was the serendipitous result of a miscommunication between Scorsese and cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond.

There is an inherently melancholic undertone to The Last Waltz, as it chronicles the final time that this group of people will perform together as a unit. The intentionally anachronistic, fin-de-siècle elegance of Boris Leven’s set design, the opening waltz motif, and even Michael McClure’s lovely recitation of Chaucer, all contribute a feeling of nostalgia by hearkening back to earlier times. There is a wistful quality to the post-concert interview segments, an inescapable awareness of what’s been lost. Watching the film in 2011 this feeling is, of course, compounded both by the knowledge of the bitterness that followed the breakup of The Band, and more particularly by the deaths of Rick Danko in 1999 and Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986.  But these sadder undercurrents contribute to the texture of the film without ever overwhelming it. The Band had the talent and good fortune to flourish during an extraordinary period in the history of rock music, sharing the stage and recording studio with an incredible array of fellow artists. They knew and worked with just about everyone, and everyone came to their final party. The Last Waltz is our invitation to join that party.

View the trailer for The Last Waltz here.
The Last Waltz is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Make sure that you get the special edition: the commentaries are great!

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