I have seen “The Last Waltz” many times. The first time was on cable, about 13 years ago. I couldn’t see it before because simply finding a copy was as difficult as finding a fan of The Band here in Chile.
The Band’s case is unique. They lasted 8 years together running under that name, but they had a previous 8 years of history. They were the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan’s “Brave Apostles” on their 1966 European tour; The one where they yelled “traitor” and “judas” for his electric sets. After Dylan settled in Woodstock, The Hawks joined him in retirement and they moved to the same area; changing the name to, simply, The Band; against the current of reigning psychedelia.
The Band to the core
The Band thing is to get to the heart of the matter; to the very roots of everything. Blues, soul, gospel, jazz, folk and country. All this thanks to the great work together of Robbie Robertson (guitarist and main composer); Levon Helm (drummer and voice); Rick Danko (bass and vocals); Richard Manuel (piano and voice); and Garth Hudson (keyboards).
With 16 years on the road, The Band decides to end their presentations permanently. And they choose the Winterland Amphitheater, run by Bill Graham and the same place where they officially debuted as The Band, to close their story. They decide to walk through their most representative songs and bring numerous luxury guests: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield … the list is long.
Martin Scorsese was friends with Robbie Robertson in those days, and is excited to record The Band’s last concert. In the beginning, shoot it in 16 mm; but László Kovács, director of photography, convinces him to use 35mm film and shoot it as if it were a film. The preparation of the staging would be done in conjunction with the filming. But there was a detail: the camera engines could not endure hours of continuous filming without stopping. This would become a problem for the filming, since they could only record a certain number of songs, which had to remain yes or yes for posterity.
The stage was elegantly set: antique fabrics and three chandeliers, as well as tables in the audience area for Thanksgiving dinner. With Winterland packed, The Band kicked off the show with an intense cover of “Up On Cripple Creek,” one of their classics, setting the tone for a show lasting over three and a half hours.
“The Last Waltz” and unforgettable moments
The moments to highlight are several: the humility of Neil Young when interpreting his “Helpless”; the record with orchestra included for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; the powerful “Further On Up The Road,” opposite Eric Clapton; the miraculous filming of Mannish Boy, opposite Muddy Waters (“It looked like a gigantic cathedral, the Winterland shook to the Mannish Boy beat,” recalls a moved Scorsese); the emotionally heartbreaking set with Bob Dylan, which included “Forever Young” mixed with “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” and the “grand finale” with “I Shall Be Released.”
Scorsese, reviewing the raw material, realized that it looked like a movie. In the following months, he dedicated himself to completing the work with heartfelt interviews with the band, who reflected in perspective on the last show and their career as a whole, giving emotional testimonies. In addition, Scorsese had the luxury of filming 3 more songs: “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris, “The Weight” with The Staples and the waltz suite for the closing of the film, applying incredible takes and his skills as a teacher of the lens. . By early 1978, the film was released.
Much has been said that “The Last Waltz” is probably the best filmed concert in the entire history of popular music. I think that, more than being the best, it was the precise photo of an unrepeatable moment. The film, as Scorsese has put it, reflects simple people expressing their feelings in music, overflowing passion and spirituality in a true ritual. The film immortalizes a unique moment, a “swan song” without decadence, a “last waltz” without false smiles, without ironies or negative spirits.
“The Last Waltz” tells of a group of 5 simple guys, very talented and with a stamp of their own, who were able to leave an indelible memory of integrity, exploration, rescue and courage.