#30 — The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978)
I have a strong memory from when I was a kid, and by kid, I mean an age that I could accurate convey using nothing more than the fingers of my two hands. Our household had HBO, and, for a time, the adults watched absolutely any new movie that came on, regardless of whether or not they would have been interested under normal circumstances. I was typically uninterested, and often excluded anyway. If I saw the telltale R appear onscreen before a new feature started, I knew it was my signal to go and find some way other than television watching to occupy my time. So the adults were watching a movie and I was on the stairwell playing with some trucks. While I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping on the film’s audio, I was oddly drawn in to a story being told, something about visiting a musician who played songs, all the while spitting into a can on the floor by his side. The man telling the tale noted that he assumed it was simply the nasty byproduct of chewing tobacco being spit into the receptacle, at least until he leaned over and saw that the can was filled with blood. According to the teller, two weeks later they received a phone call indicating the man who had been spitting that blood was now dead.
I had no idea what that film was, but the story absolutely haunted me. I found it deeply disturbing and on the occasions when I though of it, which thankfully grew rarer as the years wore on, I was immediately hit with a chill. Something about it–the details maybe, or the sense of a seemingly happy occasion that suddenly has a portent of cruel mortality, or just the quiet artfulness of the telling–played on my unschooled attempts to understand an inherently unfathomable world where bad things happened all the time and no one was truly safe. I never asked my mother or eventual stepfather if they remembered a film with that story and didn’t tell anyone about this creepy memory lodged into a shadowed crevasse of my psyche.
Years later, when my age required fingers and toes to relay, I was home alone watching MTV. The cable channel was just beginning to experiment with different shows and other programming to supplement their round-the-clock broadcast of music videos. That included an array of classic rock ‘n’ roll movies on Saturday nights. I found myself watching The Last Waltz, a film that focused on the farewell concert given by The Band, a group that I had been taught to revere by both Rolling Stone magazine and the local radio station adhering to a format now called “Adult Alternative.” Interspersed with the live music performances were interview segments with the members of the group, many of them looking scruffy and bedraggled, as if all of the years of touring had been poured into a single night that they trudged through right before the filming. Right in the middle of the movie, Robbie Robertson, the group’s chief songwriter, started talking about the lot of them going out to visit Sonny Boy Williamson one night, everyone drinking and playing music. And Williamson, Robertson noted, kept spitting into a can.
I hadn’t thought of that story in so long, but in a shocked instant I was back on those carpeted steps from around a decade earlier. I could practically feel the yellow-painted truck below my hand, sense the mesmerized paralysis that hit my body then, feel the welling of barely understood trepidation in my chest. The surge of memory and feeling was so strong that I literally needed to shut off the television and take time to catch my breath, regain my composure. Without an inclination it was even possible to do so, I had finally put a name (hell, practically a specific frame of film) to my submerged memory.
I’ve seen The Last Waltz many times since it staggered me, and I find it vivid and engrossing, even now that sense memory effect has faded. Martin Scorsese directs with a lithe, keen intensity. He works with chief Director of Photography Michael Chapman and a small battalion of assistants, including such masters as László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, to press in on the music performances, getting the full energy of The Band as they mash their way through their repertoire one last time and return to their origins as a crack backing group by ceding the mic to such exalted figures as Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. There’s even a spotlight turn by Neil Diamond, who’d seem somewhat incongruous mixing it up with this crowd if not for the fact that he delivers one of the film’s best and most fitting songs with “Dry Your Eyes,” which asks, “If you can’t recall the singer/ Can you still recall the tune?”
If the concert is exuberant, then Scorsese finds the appropriately elegiacal quality in the interviews that he intersperses throughout. The members of The Band talk about their shared history and the transformational quality of rock ‘n’ roll itself. They talk about what they’ve done as a calling, a profession, a pastime and life’s mission. They look right into the camera and talk about where they’ve arrived with the sombre (though surely not sober) weariness of men who know their era is passing. One of the finest moments in the film involves an interview filmed some time after the concert. Scorsese follows Rick Danko into a studio dubbed space dubbed Shangri-La where the band’s now-former bassist has been working on his first solo album. Danko plays the song “Sip the Wine” for the director and then sits quietly, solemnly listening to it, his face obscured by darkness. Everything he’s lost and all that he hopes to gradually regain seems to wrap around him in that moment and it provides insight into the temporary, elusive nature of the spiritual security that exists in the life in musicians.
Though there are those who are quick to dub this the greatest concert film of all time, probably persuaded at least in part by the involvement of Scorsese, surely one of the most skilled directors to work on the form, there are others who excoriate it. The latter group is doing so, at least in part, in support of drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who famously derided the film as a hagiography of Robertson, to the detriment of the other members of the band. I’ve never seen a take-down of The Last Waltz that doesn’t echo Helm’s complaints, often practically word-for-word. The added attention that Scorsese arguably brings to Robertson doesn’t seem all that odd to me, especially since he was the primary songwriter (he was, in fact, the sole credited songwriter on 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross, which can reasonably be interpreted as their last true and proper studio album). What’s more, when I watch it, I honestly get the sense of a whole group of musicians, journeymen by nature who’ve pulled off the improbable by sticking together over a decade, edging off to new, unpredictable places. It is the totality of the piece that stirs me. Robertson, Danko, Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel will all endure, at least for a while, after the last note is played on the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It is The Band that will be no more. That is clear all the way through the film, and Scorsese does a beautifully job of helping to bring the curtain down.