Movie still from 1978's "The Last Waltz."

The Last Waltz May 14, 2016

The Last Waltz (1978), unlike most concert movies, lacks joy. It was made in a sad state of mind. Filmed in 1976, it documents the final concert from The Band, a gathering made all the more special because of starry-eyed guest appearances and by Martin Scorsese, who was recruited by the band’s guitarist, Robbie Robertson, to make a movie out of the show. And an extravaganza it is. Between one-on-one interviews led by Scorsese, we are treated to performances by The Band individually and by additional artists that include (but are not limited to) Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Emmylou Harris.

It’s been declared that The Last Waltz is among the greatest music documentaries ever made. I'm a little apprehensive to consider it as such: there isn't enough cinematic electricity, I don't think, to make it very much more than a filmed concert.  Its conversational interludes are not as much revelatory as artificial-feeling. As Scorsese puts considerable focus on Robertson (whose weariness is masked by what seems like smugness), we are not given much of a chance to get acquainted with the neuroses of other members of The Band.

 

Robertson says he couldn't imagine himself and the group making it to 20 years; when The Last Waltz was filmed, they had been together for 16. Most are battling drug addiction (rumors of backstage cocaine use have proliferated over the years; Scorsese’s personal life was in shambles at the time for similar reasons); touring has long taken a toll. They need some time apart — time apart from each other and from live audiences.

 

Part of The Last Waltz’s appeal stems from this fatigue; we’re seeing people, not stars, on the brink. They’ve spent their adult lives making consumers happy — something that can drain. The Band, along with most of their guest stars (except the cheerful Staples Singers), don’t look like performers who enjoy what they do. There's a sense of obligation permeating the air. A lot of it is forced. But the august music still sounds good; the movie's broken heart can't change that. 

 

I especially like Mitchell’s rendering of her cult classic “Coyote,” and I love how much temporary euphoria Mavis Staples brings to the film as she and her family band assist the focal group as they pull off “The Weight.” I also could be more partial since I only recently watched a Staples documentary on HBO, or because I’ve been listening to Mitchell’s Court and Spark obsessively for the past few weeks. But I digress. The Last Waltz, handsomely photographed and sonically 

strong, will be entertaining for anyone with a soft spot for these musicians — though this assortment of people won't alienate the casual viewer. A concert is a concert. B