The Last Waltz
The funny thing about 1978’s The Last Waltz is its utter lacking of joy. It was made with a melancholy conscience, anyway: filmed in 1976, it depicts the final concert of The Band, which was made all the more special by 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.
And maybe the renditions would be high-voltage if the film were Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991). But as it is, more or less, the musical funeral for one of the decade’s most beloved acts, there’s a certain sort of crestfallen energy that renders it all as a depressing affair, not the celebration it was meant to be.
It’s been declared that The Last Waltz is among the greatest music documentaries ever made, but I suppose I’m apprehensive to consider it as such since there’s not enough cinematic electricity to make it much more than a filmed concert. Its interludes of conversation are not so much revelatory as they are subtly artificial — as Scorsese puts considerable focus onto Robertson (whose weariness is masked in smugness), we are not given much chance to get acquainted with the neuroses of other members of The Band.
What we can tell, though, is that most of them have drug issues (rumors about backstage cocaine use have proliferated over the years; Scorsese’s personal life was in shambles at the time), and that touring isn’t for them anymore. As they’ve been together for sixteen years, it’s time to understand life away from crowds, from instruments, and from each other. Robertson couldn’t imagine making it to twenty — it’s unthinkable.
Part of The Last Waltz’s appeal stems from this fatigue, as we’re seeing people, not stars, on the brink of losing it. They’ve spent their adult lives making consumers happy. But it also makes a lot of the film suffer from noticeable dejection. 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 inevitability that bends the corners of its celluloid pages. A lot of it is forced.
But its august music is unable to feel the effects of the film’s broken heart. Maybe the people making the music look like they’re anxious to get off the stage. But our ears are incapable of being fooled, and since The Band consists of a group of ace instrumentalists, since their friends are more than just artists trying to make a name for themselves, our toes tap and our hearts race perspicuously. 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 could also be 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 aurally tuneful, will be entertaining for anyone with a soft spot for these musicians, let alone a soft spot for music as a whole. I’m turned off by its pangs of quasi-misery, but the rest is up to you. The performances are too mellifluous for the mundanities of a complaint, regardless. B