The Last Waltz was an ironic end to the career of The Band, for a group who had never craved the spotlight or displayed a tendency for dramatics, their final concert was a grandiose send off that perhaps didn't befit their desire for anonymity. As a concert film and album it's breathtaking in it's scope, in the artists that appeared and the fact that they pretty much pulled it off. The concert was held on Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In the aftermath The Band were no more, bitter accusations would emerge in later years from drummer Levon Helm that the whole project was done under sufferance and that it was all for the benefit of Robbie Robertson. Leaving that aside for me when I first saw the film as a 15 year old I was completely blown away, it was a tight show and was interspersed with interesting and humorous anecdotes from their days on the road, most of which I can still repeat verbatim! The idea to film the concert came from Robertson who pitched it to Martin Scorsese who was eager to capture the spirit of the group on film. I think all involved were caught by surprise at how much effort and money it took to pull the whole project off, and the tension involved made it a difficult process.
The film starts off with the guys in their clubhouse Shangri-La studios which was located in Malibu, Rick Danko is huddled over a pool cue and Scorsese asks him "what's the game Rick? Danko nonchalantly replies "Cutthroat, the object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else's off" The film doesn't feature the songs in the order in which they were performed, The Band performed their own set before inviting on selected guests to perform a song of their own. The film curiously opens with their final song, a marvellous cover of the Marvin Gaye Song Baby Don't Do It. The blended voices of Rick and Levon provide a rough and ready rendition before Robbie offers one last burst from his guitar to bring the final curtain down. After the intro The Band open with Up On Cripple Creek from their classic self titled album which was released in 1969, the song has a tightness or perhaps a tension to it maybe because there is a feeling that this is the last time they will perform it together. It actually makes for a great performance, especially Levon on the drums and in his role as the salacious road weary traveller who just wants to see his Bessie one more time.
One of the funniest anecdotes is told by Robbie as an introduction to their former boss Ronnie Hawkins, the hawk had offered young Robbie a job and informed him, "you won't make much money, but you'll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra" Robbie tells the story in the most dead panned manner. Then the hawk bounces on to the stage extolling his troops one more time, pressing them own as they storm their way through a rollicking version of Who Do You Love. There are more interesting stories of early days on the road playing tough dancehalls in the south and of having to steal food from supermarkets because they were flat broke.
Stage Fright which was written from the rear view of their first concerts as the Band, Rick Danko gives an amazing performance, like he is the only one on the stage, grappling with the terror of the houselights that adorn him. He takes that sense of fragility to another level on the majestic It Makes No Difference with some beautiful harmonies from Levon in the chorus, it finishes with a nice sax solo from Garth Hudson. Another highlight of the film is the duel between Robbie and Eric Clapton on Further On Up The Road, their guitar work is sizzling, Clapton displays his fluidity while Robbie is all manic bursts and fireworks. Levon's performance on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is probably the best live version their is of the song, if you watch him in the film he just sings his backside off, it's full of emotion.
In quite a strange choice, and one that certainly rankled Levon, Neil Diamond performs Dry Your Eyes which had been produced by Robbie for his Beautiful Noise album. Van Morrision kicks things up a gear with soul stirring performance of Caravan complete with leg kicks in the final stanza. In one of the final interviews in the film Robbie seems to sum up his sentiment at the time and one that seems to have remained with him ever since, "the road is a goddamn impossible way of life". It was a life that sustained them all for close to 17 years, it was a life that the other members couldn't escape. There was a feeling that the movie served as a focus for Robbie, that he appears in most of the interview segments and seemed to be the spokesman for the group. There was very little footage of Richard Manuel, he is filmed on one song The Shape I'm In on which he is helped by Rick and Levon. Tragically Manuel was in the depths of drug and alcohol addiction and seemingly had little interest in the project.
In the lead up to the concert Bob Dylan had made it clear that he didn't want to be filmed, this had sent the film producers into a frenzy as without him the movie would be fatally flawed. At the last minute practically as he was walking on stage Dylan gave his permission, they did an impassioned performance of Forever Young with Robertson contributing some soulful licks. They then delve into a raunchy version of Baby Let Me Follow You Down, and whilst not as apocalyptic as their version on their 1966 world tour it still packed a rock and roll riddled punch. The performance comes to an end with an all star cast version of I Shall Be Released with all the musicians gathered on stage, it's a fitting send off to a group who were much loved and respected. It's interesting that the film never captured the tension between the members, it always came across that they were a band of brothers, sometimes the story presented hides a deeper truth. I think it's correct that Robbie certainly benefited from the success of the film, he moved effortlessly into the Hollywood circle. The other members of the Band struggled to find their place in a rapidly changing music scene, they eventually re-grouped without Robbie in 1983.