They were rock’s ultimate ‘musical melting pot’, a group whose mystique and musicianship came from 16 years on the road, their legendary role as Bob Dylan’s band, and a mythic repertoire that fused the rural and traditional with the urban and cutting edge.
So The Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 when they were joined in an exhaustingly thrilling performance by a staggering guest line up of their influences, friends and admirers became an end of era event.
While it’s primarily thought of as a concert film, ‘Waltz’ also includes a number of sequences that tell the Band’s story through interviews with the guys who made the music: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson. Without being overtly linear about it, Scorsese leads the viewer from the group’s early days as barroom players and hired hands through their platinum success as a recording act in their own right, touching on everything from groupies to gigs gone awry.
It’s really the performances that make the movie, though and although like most live releases of the rock era, ‘Waltz’ was heavily overdubbed after the fact, the musicians’ casually taut interplay shines through, as does the sheer bittersweet joy of the occasion. Unlike a lot of all star jams, this show works as a cohesive whole new quality that’s largely owed to the Band’s deep experience with the unique responsibility of the backing musician’s role, but one that’s also a reflection of the sheer strength of the bond between the players on the stage.
That bond was at a fairly low ebb for the Band during this era the other members of the group were upset with Robertson for making the decision to retire from the road, and in subsequent years, he and Scorsese came under fire for minimizing the contributions of Danko, Helm, Hudson, and Manuel but whatever their problems might have been behind the scenes, or whatever cinematic trickery Scorsese might have deployed to make ‘The Last Waltz’ feel like more of a unified (and drug free) experience than it really was, the whole thing hangs together with a sweaty, ragged charm, and when the whole cast of characters comes together on stage at the end to deliver a gloriously loose rendition of ‘I Shall Be Released,’ it’s enough to make anyone believe in the love and brotherhood that still rings true in the Band’s best songs.
As with most classic rock releases, there are a number of different versions of ‘The Last Waltz’ floating around; it’s been remastered and expanded more than once over the last 30-odd years, and anyone who bought it the first time out has had to decide whether or not to reinvest.
This is one case, though, where it’s worth it for the ‘Waltz’ novice to buy the best of everything available and for anyone who owns an earlier version to pony up for the Blu-ray (not to mention the ‘Last Waltz’ box, which expands the soundtrack album to four discs and adds unreleased or unedited performances from the show. It truly was a wonderful live event