Retro Review – The Last Waltz (1978)

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Overview

Synopsis "The Band" gives their final performance in November 1976, while also reflecting upon on their 16 years of touring and watching the music industry evolve around them.

Length 1 hour, 57 minutes

Release Date April 26, 1978

 

Rating PG

Distribution United Artists (theatrtical), The Criterion Channel (streaming)

Directing Martin Scorsese

Starring Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson

April 26th of this year marked the 45th anniversary of The Last Waltz, which was commemorated by the film’s rerelease on 4K Blu-ray and inclusion in the Criterion Collection, with a brief accompanying theatrical release this month. Martin Scorsese hardly needs an introduction, given that his newest film Killers Of The Flower Moon is still in theaters and has grossed more than $102 million at the global box office. However, his reputation as a rock-and-roll documentarian is likely less well-known, despite having directed documentaries like No Direction Home, Shine a Light, George Harrison: Living in the Material World, and Rolling Thunder Revue.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None.
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language and sexual language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink frequently and spend much of the film implicitly high or drunk.
Sexual Content: Characters talk about their sex lives and how their careers attracted women.
Spiritual Content: A handful of references to spirituality.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of growth, change, and friendship.

Review

To know the history of The Last Waltz is to learn the entire history of mid/late 20th century American music. The anachronistically titled rock group known officially as “The Band” sits directly at the heart of American music in the 1960s and 1970s, and to know them up through the final concert in 1976 is to experience nearly two decades of music history all at once.

In 1978, director Martin Scorsese was fresh off of his career-defining successes/failures with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and New York New York, and he was in early development on his career-defining masterpiece Raging Bull. He and the other “Movie Brats” like Coppola, Lucas, and Spielberg were redefining what American movies looked like and elevating their nation’s cinema to new heights of artistry. And in the middle of this, Scorsese released what is widely considered to be the greatest and most influential concert films of all time.

As songwriter Robbie Robinson argues in the film, the events surrounding this film marked the “beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning” for an epoch in music. On Thanksgiving Day 1976, The Band gave its ostensibly final performance in San Francisco called “The Last Waltz,” intended as a celebration of their work and a final outing for the group before parting ways. The movie marked—in some ways—the end of The Band’s golden age after 16 years touring on the road, but captured the beginning of their group’s legacy as one of the most influential music groups in history.

The Band itself would go through many subsequent revivals and shakeups, although Richard Manuel’s suicide in 1986 deflated much of The Band’s subsequent attempts. Robbie Robertson would eventually become a collaborator with Scorsese, composing music for many of his recent films like The Irishman and Killers of the Flower Moon prior to his death this year. 

The filmed version of The Last Waltz is structured around the concert itself and a series of interviews between Scorsese and the band members, all sharing their thoughts on their legacy and tangential stories about how they met, how their work intersected with historic moments in music and culture, and why the band ultimately decided to go their separate ways after this final performance.

The Band itself was never the largest or most successful group in music history, but its proximity to momentous historical moments made it tremendously influential—as evidenced by the fact that dozens of musicians like Ringo Star, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton all took the stage to perform for their final performance. The Band was on the ground floor of the 1960s music scene and worked with all of the greats, and their stories and rise to prominence reflected their era as folk music and counter-culture overtook the more austere culture of mainstream America.

Scorsese realized the film as a mostly plotless montage of beautiful sights and sounds, using his pristine eye for visual storytelling the capture some of the sharpest and most beautiful concert footage ever put to screen. The movie intercuts the Band performing songs with interviews from all of the cast members talking about their experiences, although the film has been criticized by former bandmates for being biased towards Robertson (which is difficult to litigate given how much drug use and interpersonal drama mired their relationship and memories of these events).

Despite mostly focusing on the concert itself, it is not a film without a moral. As the title suggests, all good things must come to an end. The concert itself was legendary and it was done so to close the book on The Band as it once was. Robertson reflects towards the end that he cannot imagine continuing to tour much further, fearing that he could fall to the same fate as great artists who gave too much of themselves to “the road” and died doing so. He needed change, which proved fortuitous when The Band reformed a few years later without him and struggled to attain its prior heights of success.

The Last Waltz accomplishes a great deal in its two-hour runtime, both as a work of filmmaking and a work of defining music history. It is a powerful accomplishment in visual storytelling as well as a piece of history in and of itself that preserves a very peculiar moment, making it the perfect convergence of great artistic talent being in the right place at the right time to bring this last hurrah to screens and preserve it forever.

The film certainly won’t carry as much weight for viewers unfamiliar with the history, as most concert films require a level of investment with the personalities involved to want to see them in theaters in the first place (see also The Eras Tour). But the significance of The Last Waltz is a documentation of the intersection of two great moments in history: Scorsese’s ascendency to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and The Band’s ascendency to legends of music. It is a once-in-a-lifetime convergence.

Positives

+ Beautiful films and editing
+ Great musical performances
+ Great interviews with the performers

Negatives

- Somewhat plotless and tangential

The Bottom Line

The Last Waltz is one of the greatest concert films of all time and remains one of Martin Scorsese's most notable and unique works of filmmaking!

 

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

4 Comments

  1. Michael Kiel on November 27, 2023 at 4:48 pm

    LOVED Rick Danko’s Stage Fright.

  2. Craig on November 26, 2023 at 8:49 am

    hi my name Craig Votta I was fortunate enough to see the last waltz in New Orleans last year at the Steiger theater was hosted by Jamie Johnson, Warren Hayes, and Grace Potter I was so privileged to see this concert. It was truly amazing

  3. Barry Flanagan on November 26, 2023 at 4:40 am

    It is a great article bravo! And Robbie always sang on bridges and chorus’ off mic so yes he could be considered one of the singers. My advise? …Watch “Band of Brothers” and immediately following it w Last Watlz. I accidentally did this a few years ago and was really touched by the whole story in reverse.

  4. Juan Scaer on November 24, 2023 at 10:07 am

    What idiot wrote this?! Robbie Robertson was Never a ‘singer’ with the Band! He was a great songwriter/guitar player and defacto leader; in fact sometimes they used to unplug his microphone in case he got the urge…Though I do not know Mr. Brooks birthday, he may have been in first grade when the Last Waltz was filmed! So, obviously he is not on it, unless I missed a very short child on-stage! Do your research/homework or better yet, don’t write, you’re embarrassing those who actually do!

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