Combustible Celluloid
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With: The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson), Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, Mavis Staples, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, Ron Wood, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Written by: Mardik Martin
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 117
Date: 04/25/1978

The Last Waltz (1978)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Waltzing Towards Greatness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Every few years you witness a transcendent musical moment, like Kurt Cobain and Nirvana rattling and screeching their way through Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" during their astonishing 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. Martin Scorsese's newly refurbished 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, opening today at the Castro Theater for a week's run, contains at least three moments like that.

Filmed mostly on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 in San Francisco's Winterland, The Last Waltz documents the final performance by The Band. According to legend, the $25 ticket included a full turkey dinner, but you wouldn't know that from watching this film. Scorsese concentrates almost completely on the music and the performers on stage. We rarely even see audience members or roadies.

The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and the late Rick Danko and Richard Manuel) invited a host of musical legends to join them on stage, and so Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, The Staples, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood and Neil Young answered the call.

The first transcendent moment comes early when Neil Young takes the stage for a rendition of his powerful song "Helpless." About two-thirds of the way through, a silhouetted Joni Mitchell joins in on the chorus from backstage, her voice floating through Winterland like a ghost.

The Band's performance of their signature song "The Weight" makes up the second moment, all the more powerful because Scorsese shot it after the concert on a perfectly-controlled sound stage. But even in this environment, The Band -- teamed up with The Staples -- delivers a beautiful, heartfelt performance. At one point, Scorsese tracks backward, keeping in time with the music, and ends the shot just as the first of The Staples enters the right side of the frame -- and cuts just as she begins singing her line.

Indeed, Scorsese developed a 300-page "shooting script" that allowed him to shoot and cut in time with the music, making this the most ambitious and epic concert film up to that time (only Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense has equaled it). Incidentally, Scorsese had worked as a cameraman on Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970), which used an innovative multi-screen effect, but still filmed the musicians in a simple point-and-shoot manner.

The third moment comes, of course, at the movie's climax, in which all the performers return to the stage for a rousing version of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

When Van Morrison comes out, he at first looks like a pint-sized circus performer in his sparkly jumpsuit. You expect him to do cartwheels. But then he opens his mouth and a velvety volcano of a voice explodes out of him, singing his familiar "Caravan," with the "la la la la -- la la la" chorus.

Between songs, Scorsese interviews the band members (mostly Robertson) as they reminisce about their long career on the road, telling stories about drinking, girls and music -- generally looking exhausted but happy. After this film, Robertson went on to work with Scorsese again on the soundtracks to films like The King of Comedy and The Color of Money.

I had seen The Last Waltz once or twice on home video in the mid-80s when I was looking at Scorsese's films for the first time. At the time, Neil Diamond was something of a joke (thanks in part to his E.T. tribute song "Turn on Your Heartlight") and Eric Clapton was still considered cool. How times have changed. Diamond has now earned a certain amount of cool cred (thanks in part to the Urge Overkill cover of his "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" in Pulp Fiction) while Clapton has turned into a lite rock radio staple. Indeed, Clapton's performance in The Last Waltz now seems like one of the movie's slow points.

MGM/UA has restored the film according to Robbie Robertson's and Scorsese's specifications, and seeing it at the newly refurbished Castro Theater was a truly memorable experience. The moment the audience's applause explodes from the screen, you can hear it all around you. The music itself moves right through your body.

It's best to leave your inhibitions in the daylight, because The Last Waltz makes you want to sing and dance.

DVD Details: Scorsese's concert film comes to DVD fresh from its remastered theatrical run earlier this year, and the disc is just as impressive as the big screen experience (provided you can play it loud, as the opening titles recommend). Rather than just pointing and shooting, as many other concert films had done, Scorsese worked out a complex shooting script timed to the beat of the music. Besides the movie, and its memorable performances by The Band, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison and the Staples, the disc comes with "jam sessions," two commentary tracks, one by Scorsese and one by The Band's leader Robbie Robertson, a photo gallery and a featurette.

In 2022, the Criterion Collection released a glorious Blu-ray edition of the film, which includes three sparkling sound mixes: DTS, 5.1, and 2.0. It includes the aforementioned commentary tracks and jam session, plus a brand-new interview with Scorsese conducted by my colleague David Fear, a 1978 TV interview with Scorsese and Robertson, an archival featurette, "Revisiting The Last Waltz," trailers, TV spots, and a liner notes essay by critic Amanda Petrusich. Highly recommended.

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