Registering the Registry 2019: The Last Waltz (1978)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Cognress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, Martin Scorsese and some of the best camera operators of the decade convened to film The Band’s final concert in 1976. In 1978, The Last Waltz hit theaters in all its strangely compromised glory. Let’s talk about it, shan’t we?

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First, apologies for the break.

Second, background on The Band, for those not already in the know/those of us who don’t hurriedly skim Wikipedia and TV Tropes to sound like they were already in the know. *cough* Anyhow, initially known as The Hawks and serving as the travelling backing band for rockabillly musician Ronnie Hawkins, the group that would become The Band started with multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm and several others following Hawkins on a tour into Canada, and gradually adopting Canadian musicians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson from 1957 to 1961. Dissatisfied with Hawkins’ controlling nature and repetitive setlists, the group split from his act in 1963 and performed under numerous aliases for the next several years, most prominently appearing as Bob Dylan’s backing band during his early electric days, minus Helm’s involvement. A particularly productive jam session at Big Pink in 1967 resulted in an immensely popular bootleg (eventually released as The Basement Tapes), and, upon Helm’s return to the fold partway through, the band gained enough confidence in their aiblity to start recording and touring under the simple moniker Dylan always used to identify them: The Band. Cue eight years of respectable success mixing rhythm and blues, oldtime Americana, and hard rockin’ tunes to long-lasting effect.

The road extracts a heavy price from all who travel, though, and with time tensions among the group and the strain of constant touring brought The Band to an end. Specifically, Robbie Robertson, who’d gradually exercised ever-greater control over the group’s songwriting and proceedings, decided he couldn’t take the touring life anymore, and plotted a grand farewell concert to be held Thanksgiving night 1976. Where the rest of the band might not have agreed with his decision (indeed, they initially conceived of the concert as an end to their touring rather than the group as a whole, and when an inevitable split happened, the reunion a few years later would push on without Robertson), certain factors conspired to make it a monumental occasion. In the course of sixteen years in the music business, the five members of The Band had established a great deal of connections to popular and influential acts across a broad spectrum of styles, everyone from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell to Neil Diamond to Dylan himself, many of whom were more than happy to appear as guest stars after the initial set. Jonathan Taplin, the group’s old manager, got into the film business and produced Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough hit Mean Streets, which resulted in his recommending Scorsese to plan and film the concert when the time came. Scorsese, for his part riding high on Taxi Driver in 1976 and yet to hit the stumbling block of New York, New York, threw himself into the project full-heartedly. Among other things, he and his team extensively plotted the picture with storyboards drawn from song lyrics, swung such cinematographers as Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond, and László Kovács to shoot it, endeavored to present the whole thing in 35mm at a time when most concert films were shot in a ragged 16mm vérité style, and hired Boris Leven of West Side Story and The Sound of Music fame to work the production design.

Even if nobody else in The Band wanted The Last Waltz to serve as their sendoff, they could hardly ask for better circumstances to stage a temporary goodbye. Between the group’s greatest hits performed live, the murderer’s row of guest talent, and a handful of studio-produced sequences to allow for greater control over active camera movement and lighting, the picture certainly has a power to it, even as it’s somewhat strange to view these events in a chopped-up order and know around half the night’s performances aren’t included. Something in the associative editing which takes us from idle comments backstage to fitting songs and back again makes the temporal distortion seem natural, memories of the best we had to offer mixed with backstage insight, and presented in crystal clear definition. Practically everyone who takes the stage is in rare form, skipping along from genre to genre like a tour of friends and influences who’re giving it their all. Certain shots damn near take my breath away, like Rick Danko shot from the back with a spotlight rendering him silhouette during “Stage Fright,” or Joni Mitchell’s clear blue eyes catching the camera as she sings “Coyote,” or the camera twisting about to reveal Pop Staples for his verse on “The Weight.” You see Van Morrison in his spangly leisure suit lose himself to high kicks at the climax of “Caravan”, Garth Hudson work his organ magic in the dark on “Chest Fever”, or Muddy Waters killing “Mannish Boy” in a continuous take from the only camera in operation at the time, and it’s hard to give Roger Ebert’s assessment of the film as exhausted people glad it’s finally all over much credence. Exhausted they may be, they’ve still a commitment to and love of all the music they bring, and even if it’s a workman’s performance across the board, it’s work that can convince you of the power in those words and melodies.

Course, if one is to discuss The Last Waltz, one does have to discuss Robbie Robertson, and in this respect I can understand where one gets the idea The Band is exhausted and completely, totally Done.

See, in the years since release, Levon Helm has alleged Scorsese conspired with Robertson to make The Band look like Robertson’s backing group, with him as the great leader who made all the important decisions, had all the great stories, and served as the driving force of a group who reportedly strove to keep equity between all members. Though it’s easy to feel skeptical towards Helm (he was the earliest member of The Hawks, frequently clashed with Robertson throughout the group’s latter years, and was embroiled in a series of legal battles over songwriting credits until his death), I’d say the film does bear him out. Scorsese and his people meticulously plotted and staged every aspect of the concert, so a stage set-up that placed Robertson and Danko on their strings front and center, with Helm off to one side and Manuel and Hudson practically lost in the shadows on the other seems purpose-made to draw the camera towards one of the two guys at center stage. This is before you consider how the camera crew is more than capable of catching the guest performers from all manner of angles around the stage, tight shots on their performances from practically every corner, while Helm and Danko only get limited close-ups when it’s their turn to sing, and Manuel and Hudson barley get any at all. Robertson, meanwhile, receives flattering close-ups on every song, even those he’s not lead on and merely pretends he’s singing into a switched-off mic, and is positioned to muscle his way into the shot for all the guest performers. Even on Manuel’s big show-closer “I Shall Be Released,” the camera spends more time focused on Robertson harmonizing backing vocals with Dylan and Neil Young than it does any other guests or bandmembers harmonizing, or indeed Manuel singing lead – he gets dick all, really.

If the concert portions weren’t enough to convince one of Scorsese’s bias towards Robertson, the interview passages almost certainly will. Reportedly all members of the band were extensively interviewed in as many locations as we see in the finished picture, yet a good 80% of the time is Robertson recounting his experiences either solo or amongst a very tired looking selection of bandmates. Notably, Levon Helm is either entirely missing from the group segments, or shunted off nearly behind the camera and pointedly quiet the one time I could find him. He’s far, far more open during his solo piece talking about rock ‘n’ roll as a fusion of many disparate genres, but it’s also the only time he’s talking on his own – don’t expect to hear much of anything from Danko, Manuel, or Hudson when the film cuts backstage. I wouldn’t put this down to malice or conspiracy, of course – going by the nine film-music collaborations between Scorsese and Robertson in the subsequent decades, it seems most likely Scorsese took a shine to the man he found most interesting and engineered the film to flatter him best, unfortunately at the expense of those who deserved just as much recognition. It is a bit of a crummy implication he weaves all the same, though one is inclined to feel better about him massaging one ego when one remembers the primary cost was another bunch of egos getting bruised. So it goes with rock ‘n’ roll, so it goes.

Still. Still still still. Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm’s feud is not our own. Robertson is not the only person in The Last Waltz, nor are The Band the only performers. You’re here for their tunes, of course, but you’re also here to appreciate Eric Clapton shredding it during “Further Up the Road.” To wonder at just what Bob Dylan was thinking when he decided a conical white cowboy hat with white velvet strap above curled hair, a leather jacket, and a polka-dotted button-down were the Look for the evening as he plays “Forever Young”. To Accept Neil Diamond and his aviators. To sit there on the couch with the sound turned way up like the title card said (and because Scorsese’s voice is damned quiet in the interviews), watch as Neil Young takes the stage for “Helpless,” and get hit by his crystalline voice like it’s your first time hearing him even though you’ve known his music for years, like you’re a teenaged spider-troll seeing Nicolas Cage for the first time, it’s so powerful a moment. These moments, these impacts on the eye, speak to being there amongst the talents, catching a little bit of honest laborers turning their craft into something beautiful for a few hours, with just a little of the frantic, panicked air of the crew as they negotiated contracts on the fly and tried to keep their stock from melting under the stage lights. These are musicians who can make a Lost Cause song like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” sound an earnest, universal cry of the human condition in retreat rather than a refrain for the Antebellum Days, really dig at that whole good side of the American sonic spirit without dredging the bad along for the ride. Problems ‘n’ all, it’s a lovely two hours of live music, supported by an equally killer album that gets you up to four with the right release. Figures it took a buncha Canadians to make one of the country’s biggest musical events of the decade to happen, tho.

(Seriously, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, Paul Butterfield, The Staples Singers, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan. Lotta talent for one venue.)

No, I won’t apologize for squeezing in one more song.

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Ball’s in your court, peanut gallery – what’d you make of The Last Waltz? With any luck, we’re back to our normal scheduling, so you can expect next week to feature a look at 1978’s Girlfriends, an early festival darling from Claudia Weill with feminist themes aplenty and an predictive indicator the Mumblecore movement. At present, TCM has it available to stream, while digital rentals and purchases can be found through Amazon, Vudu, and YouTube. See you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, and rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter.