After a lifetime on tour and in the studios, The Band--Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson--decided to call it quits on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. But before they blew the scene, they staged one massive goodbye party at San Francisco's Winterland Theater...and Martin Scorsese--devoted fan and confidant of Robbie Robertson--was invited to film it all, lucky for us.
As it stands, The Last Waltz runs a close second to Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense as the best concert film made to date. Once you turn this sucker on, you can't turn it off, it's so emotionally involving (and I'm including Scorsese's probing back-stage interviews as part of the package, too). The Band invited a slew of their friends to perform as part of The Last Waltz, and they all seemed to show up to support five of the hardest-working men in rock history. The Band themselves perform "Up On Cripple Creek," "Don't Do It" (the rocking opener), "It Makes No Difference" (with that insanely heartbreaking vocal by Danko, and Garth Hudson's saxophone solo, so emotional it makes tears shoot out of my eyes), and Levon's impassionate "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Meanwhile, scattered about are performances by Neil Young ("Helpless"), former collaborator Bob Dylan (all of the Band except for Levon Helm got the crap booed out of them by the audience at the famed Royal Albert Hall performance where Dylan got drubbed for going electric, so Dylan repays them by doing "Forever Young" and Royal Albert Hall favorite "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down"), Van Morrison ("Caravan"), Neil Diamond ("Dry Your Eyes"), Muddy Waters (a sizzling "Mannish Boy"), Eric Clapton ("Further On Up The Road") and, in haunting, studio-shot sequences, Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and The Staple Singers ("The Weight"). Also contributing their musical sensibilities: Dr. John ("Such a Night"), Ronnie Hawkins, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and Paul Butterfield. Plus poems read by Michael McClure and Laurence Ferlenghetti!! My favorite, though--perhaps not cinematically, but certainly musically--is Joni Mitchell doing "Coyote" with incredible verve.
Scorsese painstakingly storyboarded The Last Waltz, placing 15 cameras at strategic locations so everything he wanted could be caught on film. The concert itself was a headache sometimes--Neil Young came on hammered on coke (Scorsese famously covered up his white-dusted nose with a special effect then called a traveling matte), Bob Dylan threatened to drop out, and the Band threatened to drop out when Muddy Waters was almost cut from the bill--but somehow it all got on record and is here for us to enjoy again and again. I should note that The Last Waltz contains one of my favorite quotes of all time. Discussing the appeal of New York City, Levon Helm states "New York, it was an adult portion. We got an adult dose. So it took a couple of trips to get into it. You just go in the first time and you get your ass kicked and you take off. As soon as it heals up, you come back and you try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it." So true.
Finally, the opening of this expertly photographed (by Michael Chapman) and designed (by Boris Leven) film instructs the viewer: "THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED VERY LOUD." Again, so true.