It's hard to imagine today with MTV, VH-1 and a host of other cable channels, but at one time it was hard to see your favorite band perform. Sure, some bands would occasionally appear on daytime talk shows to promote their latest album, but these performances were always just lip synced to the record and it was nearly impossible to actually see these appearances in the pre-VCR days because of school and work. Saturday nights had Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, the only venue to see bands actually play. Unfortunatly the show that didn't start until midnight which made it rather difficult to watch for someone in their early teens, and the local paper would never list the band to be featured which was also an irritant.
That's why the few rock concerts that were filmed and theatrically released in those pre-MTV days are so fondly remembered. It was a rare chance to see the bands and singers actually up on stage performing. One of those rare films that is better than most is Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a document of the last concert given by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductrees The Band. That group might not ring a bell, they were always more popular with critics and other musicians than with the public at large, but you'd probably recognize their songs "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek", both of which are performed in this show. More than a couple of hits, this concert illustrates the talent, energy and love of music that this group had. Something that is often missing from today's bands that are conceived in an executive's office and recruited based on looks rather than talent.
The Band started off as a back up band for Toronto rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. When the left him over creative differences in 1963, they toured around playing bars and small clubs, occasionally with other front men, honing their skills through constant practice. Then in 1965 Bob Dylan asked them to be his backup band on his next tour. They traveled with Dylan through the rest of 1965 and '66 until the singer was in a motorcycle accident and retired to Woodstock to recuperate.
Left without a front man, the group started writing their own songs and eventually recorded them. The result was 1968's Music from Big Pink which was followed up by The Band (1969.) (They had trouble coming up with a name, so they decided to appropriate what everyone called them on the tour with Dylan: The Band.) These two albums would cement their place in rock history. Their third release, Stage Fright (1970) was produced and engineered by Todd Rundgren.
In 1976 after releasing a handful of other albums and touring with Dylan once again, the group decided that the strains of a road musician were getting too much for them and they decided to stop touring. To close out that chapter of their career, the decided to have one last bash. They invited Ronnie Hawkins, the man who had given them their start, to preform, along with Bob Dylan. The list of guests soon grew and grew, and the concert turned into a rock event.
This film chronicles that great night. Though it is heavily edited, the original concert was 6 hours long and Scorsese had to trim that considerably, this contains all of the highlights of the night, from Eric Clapton singing "Further Up On the Road to Dr. John's excellent rendition of "Such a Night" the concert itself was amazing. Interspersed with the performances are interviews with the band members and guest stars conducted by Scorsese himself. While these interviews are interesting and fun to watch, they don't really offer much new insight to the musicians or their craft. That's okay though, not everything has to be deep and meaningful.
In addition to the stars already mentioned, the film includes appearances by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Paul Butterfield, and Neil Diamond. Quite a line up for quite an impressive concert.
Note: The only Blu-Ray DVD player on the market at the time of this review is the Samsung BD-P1000. Apparently an error crept into the design, and a noise reduction algorithm on one of the chips was turned on which creates a softer picture. As yet there is no fix for this, or even an official announcement from Samsung.
I wasn't really looking forward to reviewing this DVD. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the concert. I just didn't want to have to rag on the image quality. After all this is a concert video from 30 years ago, it's not going to be pretty.
Luckily my early assumptions were wrong. The widescreen 1.85:1 color image looks very good. The film has been remastered, and this wasn't the faded and scratchy print I was expecting. The blacks were solid and the level of detail was very good. The image, especially the concert scenes, have a good amount of depth and look three-dimensional. Some of the interview sections are a bit flat but not to a large degree. The colors were very good overall, occasionally an interview subject would have flesh tones that looked a little off, but this was probably due to the lighting. There was some grain, which shouldn't surprise anyone due to the nature of the lighting at the show, but it isn't intrusive at all. Overall an impressive looking disc that appears much better than a rock concert of this age should.
The uncompressed PCM audio track is nothing short of spectacular. A really great sounding disc, that uses the entire soundstage. I dislike a lot of the classic albums that have been remixed for surround sound, they are often gimmicky, throwing sound around the room just to show that the engineer can perform a pan without much thought to the final sound. Concerts will often be mixed with the crowd noises in the rear and the actual music in the front. I don't mind that, but it's basically a stereo mix. For this concert they took neither tact. The music fills the entire room with some instruments being thrown to the rear, but without a lot of artificial flourishes. The music sounds natural and forceful without coming across as artificially processed. Hiss and distortion are not to be found. The sound was recorded 30 years ago, and the technology wasn't quite up to today's standards so some sections do sound a bit thinner than they should, but most people won't notice this unless they are anal retentive film critics who get nervous if they can't find something negative to say. Overall a fantastic sounding disc.
There is also a DD 5.1 mix that is also very strong and subtitles in English, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai.
This Blu-Ray DVD features the same commentary track that is included with the SD DVD. It features Band driving force Robbie Robertson and director Martin Scorsese discussing the music, the people involved, and the challenges of recording the concert. The pair weren't in the recording room at the same time, so the track comes across as a little bit jumbled as they are not talking about the same things at the same time. That's a minor concern though. Scorsese's part is mainly technical while Robertson is mainly interested in the performers and his band mates. Both manage to tell interesting anecdotes though.
Also included was a 20-minute featurette, Revisiting the Last Waltz, where Scorsese and Robertson sit down and talk about the film. Though they cover some of the same material as they do in the commentary, this is a nice extra.
It's a shame they didn't include the other bonus items from the SD release. Though the most important are found on this disc, the audio only musical pieces that are on the regular DVD are missing here, as is the photo gallery. That's a shame.
This was a great concert and a great sounding disc. Fans of 60's and 70's rock music should make a point of seeking this out. Filled with classic performers and some great songs, this was thoroughly enjoyable. The Blu-Ray release looks and sounds great. This event has never looked or sounded this good. Highly Recommended.