Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson, three of the five members of The Band, are sitting on leather couches, playing ‘Old Time Religion’, a spiritual that dates back to at least 1873. Roberston is smoking and strumming a guitar, Manuel blows into a harmonica, Danko sings and plays the fiddle. There’s another voice, so maybe Levon Helm is just off screen. When they are done, Robertson says wryly, “It’s not like it used to be,” and they all laugh.
This relaxed moment in the 1978 documentary, The Last Waltz, has an underlying sadness. It really wasn’t like it used to be, in 1976, when The Band decided to play a farewell concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, US, and get Martin Scorsese to shoot it. Their best work was behind them—Music From Big Pink (1968), The Band (1968) and The Basement Tapes (1975) with Bob Dylan, timeless albums which fused blues, folk, ragtime, country and half a dozen other genres with rock ‘n’ roll. Live performances and assorted addictions had debilitated them and the group was fracturing. They would only record one more album with the original line-up of Robertson, Danko, Helm and Garth Hudson.
Robertson died last week, at the age of 80. He was a brilliant guitarist whose riffs and fills blended with, rather than overwhelmed, the incredible playing of the rest of The Band. He was the group’s resident songwriter, his allusive, complex lyrics drawing inspiration from scripture, literature, even Akira Kurosawa’s films. He died of cancer, the same disease that took Helm. Hudson is the only surviving member; Danko died of heart failure and Manuel by suicide. Scorsese’s documentary is an eerie thing to watch because the band members look ravaged—in Manuel’s case, scarily so. The Band’s resident pianist, he had a voice that ranged from a lewd growl to an ethereal falsetto. Yet he was also the one most gripped by addiction. Eyes glazed, he wobbles through the film, struggling to construct sentences. When he sings “Oh, you don’t know, the shape I’m in”, it’s sadly ironic, because it’s clear what shape he’s in.
By 1978, when The Last Waltz came out, Scorsese was the internationally renowned director of Taxi Driver. The performances by The Band and guest stars from the 1976 concert make up the body of the film, in addition to which Scorsese filmed a couple of numbers on the MGM soundstage (including a famous version of ‘The Weight’ with The Staple Singers) and interviews with the quintet at their Shangri-La studio. The conversations are fascinating, if a bit sad, with everyone but Robertson clearly strung out.
There’s a scene with Danko and Scorsese sitting at a recording console. Scorsese asks the bassist with the unique catch in his voice what he plans to do now that The Last Waltz is over. Danko hesitates, turns a knob, finally says, “Just making music, you know. Trying to stay busy, man.” Scorsese, who had his own demons, smiles in acknowledgement and says, “It’s good.” “It’s healthy,” Danko adds.
The Last Waltz is probably their most famous recording but it’s not The Band at their live best. The 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” concert, where they backed Dylan as The Hawks (minus Helm), captures their electrifying early sound, Rock Of Ages is a richer live document of their own oeuvre. The 1976 concert is diluted by the guest spots, many of whom—Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton—have little in common with The Band’s sound. Yet there’s also a transported Van Morrison, kicking his legs in time with the horn blasts in ‘Caravan’, and Muddy Waters, whose performance of ‘Mannish Boy’ was made even more intense by a fully alert and charged Band.
A gaggle of legendary camerapersons worked on the film, including Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) and László Kovács (Easy Rider). It has a rich, burnished look and there are great little details like the silhouette of Joni Mitchell backstage singing backing vocals on ‘Helpless’. Yet, I have always felt the many claims of it being the greatest-ever concert film are misplaced. Jazz On A Summer’s Day has a sophisticated sheen and better performances. Gimme Shelter has more depth. Monterey Pop and Stop Making Sense have infinitely more invention. Next to something like the feverish Moroccan documentary Trances (which Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation helped restore), The Last Waltz looks posh and self-satisfied.
Luckily, the film doesn’t end with the concert finale, a supremely dull all-star jam of ‘I Shall Be Released’. Instead, we see The Band on a soundstage, the rest of the room in darkness. They have switched instruments, as they often did: Manuel is playing a stringed thing on his lap, Danko an upright bass, Helm a mandolin; only Robertson and Hudson play their regular guitar and organ. They play a courtly waltz specially written for the film by Robertson. It’s a sound that could have emanated from a 19th century Old West saloon. The camera is up close at first, winding around the players. But as the credits roll, it pulls away until the band is swallowed by the darkness. It ends on a freeze-frame: a formal goodbye in a film that is conceived as one.