The Last Waltz serves as the glorious, glowing sunset for rock’s greatest era. Orange, yellow, and red lights bathe the musicians, who are mostly dressed in browns and blues. Deep shadows cut their weary faces. It’s as if everyone who played at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom knew this gig would serve as both funeral and celebration–an end to some undefined beginning. The next dawn would shine on punk, disco, and new wave. All the performers here suddenly became relics of a different age.
Of course, nothing about this started with a deeper meaning in mind. Robbie Robertson, the lead songwriter and most media-savvy member of The Band, approached Martin Scorsese about filming the group’s farewell concert. Rock impresario Bill Graham managed the event, booking it for Thanksgiving 1976 and assembling a mind-boggling lineup of guest stars: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, and many more. The result was a spectacle that was as mammoth as it was bizarre: Over 5,000 guests were treated to turkey dinners. Many concertgoers dressed in tuxes and evening gowns. The final concert included fifty songs spread over five hours, spawning an incredible triple album.
Scorsese wisely whittles that exhausting experience down for film, until the final cut clocks in at just under two hours. He also intersperses the music with quiet interviews of The Band, in which they share dryly funny anecdotes from their time on the road. Some of them harken back to leaner days, while others detail a hedonistic rock group in full flower. All of them feel like moments the band won’t miss.
Most of these cutaways focus on Robertson, who acts as a de facto frontman. The other members get relegated to sidemen, occasionally offering snippets of conversation and nods of approval. This later became a bone of contention within the group, who felt that Robertson and Scorsese conspired to edit the rest of them out of the film. Indeed, only drummer/lead singer Levon Helm gets any chance to chime in alongside Robertson. That’s a shame, because his laconic Arkansas drawl really lends itself to storytelling.
The performances range from incandescent to truly baffling. Van Morrison goes supernova with a landmark rendition of “Caravan.” As Muddy Waters pounds his way through “Mannish Boy,” the other musicians onstage can barely contain their glee. Rollicking versions of “The Weight” (with The Staples Singers) and “Evangeline” (with Emmylou Harris) were reshot on an empty stage for maximum impact. On the flip side, Neal Diamond slogs through a dreary track called “Dry Your Eyes,” and Neil Young delivers a jittery, coke-addled rendition of “Helpless.”
Not surprisingly, Dylan serves as the headlining guest. The story goes that the notoriously cranky folk bard refused to be filmed for the concert at the last minute, resulting in sheer panic backstage. After much coddling from Graham, Dylan agreed to appear on two songs, both of which get featured in the final cut: “Forever Young” and “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” show the famed singer and his former backing band as they lock into a tight groove. Despite the epic length and scope of this concert, it’s a shame we didn’t get more of just Dylan and The Band together.
Still, there’s so much to process in The Last Waltz: I’ve been watching it for decades and can find new things to enjoy. Classic rock was my first musical love, and this film distills everything great about it into an engrossing two-hour experience. On that stage, there was euphoria and sadness, hope and resignation, all mingling like the brilliant colors of a jaw-dropping sunset. It was the end of something great, a fitting final act for the rock revolution. Scorsese and The Band say goodbye to both the moment and The Movement with some of the most fantabulous music imaginable.
116 min. PG. Tubi.