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The Last Waltz

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Rating: PG (Adult Language)

Running Time: 117 minutes

Starring: The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

 

Studio: MGM

Retail Price: $26.98

Features: Audio Commentaries with Director and Musicians, Unused concert footage, Featurette, Trailer and TV Spot

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (34 Scenes)

Released: May 7th, 2002

 

 

Straight off the bat, I must say that I have never been a huge fan of The Band; I don't even own a single one of their albums! Nor, am I what one would call a Martin Scorsese fanatic: I only have three of his many appreciable films in my large library (the highly stylized musical"New York, New York," the black and white classic boxing film "Raging Bull" and the highly controversial "The Last Temptation of Christ"). That said, I have always had a fascination with the collaboration of Scorses and The Band which produced 1978's merely brilliant concert film, "The Last Waltz." And, it's not even the special guest stars, though there are many, that have attracted me for so long to this cinematic climactic concert of The Band's sixteen years together. Guest stars range from the sublime Neil Young to the white-bagel-and-cream-cheese charms of Neil Diamond; from the sassy Ronnie Hawkins to the classy Emmy Lou Harris; throw Ringo Starr and Ron Wood into the mix, surround them with Bob Dylan, The Staples, Van Morrison and Doctor John, and you truly have an all-star line-up. So, what for twenty-five years has drawn me to "The Last Waltz?"

To answer that question, I suppose it would be wise to define what "The Last Waltz" is.

 

"It's the last waltz

The last waltz with you

But that don't mean

The dance is over

It's the last waltz

The last waltz was through

But that don't mean

That the party is over."

 

These lyrics by Robbie Robertson, are not heard in the film itself, though the haunting acoustically played waltz is. The first time it is heard, a young couple are melancholically whirling to the music (a similar couple appear dancing to Randy Newman's "One More Hour" in Milos Forman's "Ragtime"). The disquieting music sets a tone for the film, one that lets the viewer know that although something has ended (The Band's touring career) there will always be something celebratory continueing on. This celebration is the meat of the film, while several interviews conducted by the director allow us to get to know each of The Band's members, who each have fascinating tales to tell of "life on the road." A celebration held on Thanksgiving evening, complete with dinner and dancing, at San Francisco's Winterland; the first club that The Band played at as "The Band."

The celebration begins with Rick Danko's bluesy "Don't Do It," and before long The Band is revving up its major hit, "Up on Cripple Creek."

 

"Now there's a flood out in California and up north it's freezing cold,

And this living on the road is getting pretty old

So I guess I'll call up my big mama, tell her I'll be rolling in

But you know, deep down, I'm kind of tempted

To go and see my Bessie again.

I'm going up on Cripple Creek she sends me

If I spring a leak, she mends me

I don't have to speak, she defends me

A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one..."

 

A unique religious theme sort of runs through the lyrics of The Band's hits; temptation often rears its head, healing is fundamental (as is the healing power of music), and Biblical allusions prosper. The concert is staged, altar-like, above the crowd, and Scorsese's cameramen (all seven of them) capture not only the energy of rock and roll, but capture the spirit of The Band's members as they are filmed icon-like as they perform. Not only is "The Last Waltz" a concert, but it is a religious service (much like Bruce Springsteen's Madison Square Garden concerts), and one that easily converts the unitiated. "The Last Waltz" certainly converted me. And though "The Weight" has been covered through the years by many artists (Cheryl Crow quite recently), there is nothing to match the religious fervor acheived by having the great gospel quartet, The Staples, join The Band to let the message flow from person to person in one of the film's highlights.

 

"I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout hald past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head.

'Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?'

He just grinned and shook my hand, and 'No!' was all he said.

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free;

Take a load off Fanny, And (and) (and)

You can put the load right on me."

 

"The Weight" is brimming with religious allusions; Moses appears, (Saint?) Luke and The Devil himself. But although the weight is mighty, there is the offer of comfort from a stranger. Heady stuff for a rock and roll band, eh? Creed notwithstanding, has there ever been a more tangible spreading of the gospel than with Robbie Robertson and company?

Don't get me wrong, however, The Band is NOT a Christian gospel group, nor is "The Last Waltz" a journey to being reborn. There is so much more to both. Grinding Southern blues, particularly in the presence of Muddy Waters and Ronnie Hawkins; the latter's rollicking "Who Do You Love?" complete with vocal ad-libs is a comic treasure. The Band's own "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" is a heartfelt, heart-rending ballad told from the perspective of one Virgil Caine, a Confederate farmer, whose life has been shaken by the Civil War, as well as being one of the most popular songs The Band (and coultless others) ever recorded. In performance, in "The Last Waltz," the song brings tears to the eyes in its final, mock triumphant call:

 

"Like my father before me, I will work the land,

Like my brother above me, who took a Rebel stand,

He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave.

I swear by the mud below my feet,

You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat."

 

Heart-tugging, too, is Rick Danko's solo "Stagefright." This highly personal showcase is delivered in velvety tenor tones which send chills down the spine as the spotlight highlights only Danko, bringing us to a very up close and personal place with the singer. Is it the singer or the song that makes us feel each and every emotion the lyrics carry? Or is it the superb camera direction that Scorsese has meticulously laid out? As much of the power of "The Last Waltz" comes from Scorsese as comes from The Band. It is the way that Scorsese has chosen to capture each song, through the lighting, through the close-ups, through the camera angles and through the editing that makes "The Last Waltz" more than the sum of its many parts.

Scorsese's interviews are always well-guided, and Robbie Robertson becomes quite a literate raconteur. Of all The Band's members, he and Levon Helm are best served in the interview segments, which range from ribald chatting about The Band's first stay in a New York City hotel to the world weary statements concerning the tolls of life on the road. Often humorous, the interviews also carry the feeling of melancholy established by the film's instrumental theme.

Though most of the film is far from melancholic, the vast array of guest artists really do liven up the stage. Dr. John drops by for a fun "Such a Night," Neil Young chomps gum while singing "Helpless," Joni Mitchell shines through "Coyote," Van Morrison has never been more alive than when singing "Caravan;" (Neil Diamond could've used some of that energy, as his is the only performance - "Dry Your Eyes" - that doesn't ring true) and Emmy Lou Harris demonstrates why she is possibly the best country singer there ever has been on the bluegrass-influenced "Evangeline." Bob Dylan manages to not mumble his way through two of his own classics, "Forever Young" and "Baby, Let Me Follow you Down" before everyone comes onstage for the intentionally inspirational "I Shall be Released."

 

"They say everything can be replaced,

They say every distance is now near;

So I remember

Every face

Of every man who put me here.

They say that everyone needs protection,

Then they turn around and tell you everyone must fall

I swear I see my own reflection

Somewhere way beyond these walls.

I see my light come shining,

From the west down to the east,

Any day now, any day now,

I shall be released."

 

"The Last Waltz" is a very special movie, so let's see how MGM has treated it with their "Special Edition" DVD.

 

Anamorphically enhanced, "The Last Waltz" is presented in its original Academy Standard aspect ratio, and rarely shows signs of its true age. Scorsese has fashioned a film that is quite beautiful to look at; has this man ever - other than the deliberately drab desert decor of "The Last Temptation of Christ" - made a film that wasn't incredibly handsome? The color palette of "The Last Waltz" is for the most part muted, with rich maroons rather than bold reds, as evidenced in the draperies adorning the concert stage. Flesh tones are always consistent, which is surprising considering the harshness of stage lighting, and the problems it entails for film. Detail is rich throughout, that is until Chapter 25, one of the three numbers filmed on an M-G-M soundstage (Chapters 13 and 34 are the others), "Evangeline" sung by Emmy Lou Harris and The Band. Here a smoke effect renders the picture grainy and soft; but this is certainly a minor quibble when the rest of the film is so superbly cinematic. From sweat-drenched musicians to vivid shadow details, "The Last Waltz" looks fine. The presentation on the dvd renders a visually stunning experience which looks the way a film should look.

 

And, the newly supervised Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack aptly demonstrates that you CAN go home again. Robbie Robertson has superbly remastered the original soundtrack to a bustling, evocative surround experience. The digital clarity brings forth each and every vocal into a clearly defined space. The lyrics are readily understandable, up to, and including the normally nasal and garbled song stylings of Bob Dylan. Here, in his late youth, Dylan's vocals aren't exactly crisp, but then again, this is not the Dylan whose vocalizing on the Oscar cast a few years ago was met with mixed reactions, mostly of "What was he singing?" Matching that excellence is the spatial relationships given over to the instruments. Never muddy, this crystal clear soundtrack delivers the goods, even if the independent channel is rarely used. I only became aware of the .LFE channel in the dvd's 11th chapter, even though the bass is resounding throughout the film. It is nevertheless a soundtrack that is true to its roots, and a remarkable acheivement. Before the credits even roll, there is a title card stating, "this film should be played loud," and trust me, I pushed the volume way up, and found no distortion whatsoever. The film's original soundtrack is presented in Dolby Stereo Surround as well; this original track exhibits the same accuracy as the 5.1 track, but without nearly as much clarity. Both soundtracks rate high marks. Go ahead, play either one loudly, you won't be disappointed by either one.

 

When Martin Scorsese sits down to do a commentary track, he is always exhilarating; his love for the film medium, and his knowledge of filmmakers and filmmaking constantly shines through, Scorsese's commentaries are ones that I have always gone back to time and again. His shared commentary track on "The Last Waltz" is no exception, even though it is not screen specific, as his partner's is. Robbie Robertson, always literate, if sometimes self-inflated, shares the track with Scorsese, but Roberton's comments were recorded as he viewed "The Last Waltz;" whereas Scorsese's comments are gleaned from various interviews. This particular commentary is especially good for those who have never seen "The Last Waltz," or lack knowledge of the performers as Robertson delivers excellent background bytes about all the performers.

A more techincally, cinematically and musically, commentary track is offered up by no less than six seperate voices, from rock critic Greil Marcus to band member Levon Helm. This commentary is a vital addition to the film experience as it kaleidescopes its way from voice to voice; each voice easily identifiable through the disc's optional text activation. This commentary is very brisk, and covers all aspects of the film, from inception to the lack of an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. This commentary also covers analysis of the songs, something that is good to hear when dealing with a group like The Band.

That's not all, folks! Also included is The Band's final live recording from that Thanksgiving night. This "Archival Outtake" features the final line-up of musicians as heard in "I Shall Be Released" and "Don't Do It" improvising for nearly fifteen minutes. Like the film, the jam session can be heard in its original Dolby Stereo, or with the newly mastered 5.1 audio. It's a nice touch to have the only archival footage available, but one that I will rarely return to.

The Photo Gallery however, is one of the better galleries I have encountered. Brimming with over one hundred (!)images, divided into four directories. Legible text notes accompany many of the images, which range from "The Concert" to "Posters and Lobby Cards." The film's marketing is represented with the Original Theatrical Trailer, showing signs of age, and the full-framed Television Spot.

Finally, and this goes out to all of you who, like me, have complained about M-G-M's lack of inserts; there is a full-color, eight page insert with Liner Notes (how vinyl can we get?) written by Robbie Robertson! His four part essay should be read by anyone who is not familiar with The Band, Martin Scorsese or the film itself. And, Robertson's final dedication should bring tears to the eyes of those who have savored this film.

 

A rock group at the peak of its powers. A director with a tactile love of the mediums of film and music. A wide array of guest artists. Philosophical and intelligent lyrics. A slew of worthwhile bonus features. All delivered for a very modest price. It's a no-brainer; anyone who cares, really cares, about the shape of music, will already have "The Last Waltz" in their libraries; for the unitiated, get out there and find "The Last Waltz." Compare The Band to contemporary musicians, Creed immediately springs to mind for some odd reason; see and hear for yourself WHICH group will still be being listened to twenty-five years from now. "The Last Waltz" is a fitting eulogy to a touring band, a eulogy which aptly proves the old maxim that what is past is merely prologue.