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Savant Short Review:

The Last Waltz
Special Edition

The Last Waltz Special Edition
MGM Home Entertainment
1978 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 117 min.
Starring Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Rick Danko, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Howard Johnson, Richard Manuel, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Martin Scorsese, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples
Cinematography Michael Chapman, Michael W. Watkins, Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs
Production Designer Boris Leven
Written by and
Produced by Jonathan Taplin, Robbie Robertson, Steven Prince
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With the swingin' sixties, Rock 'n Roll finally came front and center in American media, mostly on television, with shows like Shindig. But later on in the decade, a new kind of independent concert film emerged, usually shot in 16mm at concerts or festivals. Monterey Pop was technically very inadequate, with extremely poor audio, and visuals that looked as if the camera was being jostled by enthusiastic fans. New hand-held sync sound filming on location was practical, but even in Woodstock, the resources allocated to covering such a giant concert were nowhere near sufficient - entire acts weren't filmed, and for some acts only one camera got any footage at all. The most powerful exponent of the genre was Gimme Shelter, which provided a record of the Altamont concert while also accidentally becoming a very important documentary film.

After that came a flood of concert-related shows - Medicine Ball Caravan, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Martin Scorsese had been an assistant director and editor on Woodstock, and an associate producer of Medicine Ball, and had close ties with many musicians. When The Band decided to call it quits in 1976, he was enlisted by Robbie Robertson to find a way to commemorate it on film. It started out to be the usual 16mm catch-as-catch-can show, but as enthusiasm and backing grew, evolved into a full-on 35mm multicamera recording, with state-of-the-art audio work and professional lighting and design.


For their farewell concert at Bill Graham's Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, 1976, The Band are seen performing a slate of their best songs, joined by a score of top names who do their own material and join in a final song together. Several songs are performed under studio conditions as a change of pace.

What immediately strikes one about The Last Waltz is the quality of the presentation. Most concert shows were ragged at best, including Monterey Pop where the only recording being done was a mike on the camera itself, with sound that sometimes didn't maintain solid-state capstan speed. Even the 70mm Woodstock was a technical compromise given some interest through split screens and multiple images - a lot of its original 16mm coverage was of middling to poor quality.

When Martin Scorsese determined to make The Last Waltz, he wanted to thoroughly cover the performances with multiple 35mm cameras, working with stage lighting and camera moves coordinated and choreographed to the lyric lines of the songs being sung. And he wanted to do this all for a live show without interfering with the performer-audience connection - cameras on cranes hovering over the stage blocking views, would make the audience mere accessories to a filming session.

Although he sometimes acts as if the final show were a bit overproduced, Scorsese's use of Hollywood professionals to dress up the movie was a very good move. Frankly, most earlier concert films tended to become repetitous and boring, unless one were a fanatic music fan. The carefully planned lighting changes and nicely designed stage sets give the show an edge. For once, a concert film isn't a poor substitute for really being there.

Boris Leven (West Side Story, Invaders from Mars) didn't just help rock impresario Bill Graham dress up the run-down Winterland concert hall, he created a stage set to compliment the performers, a tasteful construction of arches borrowed from an opera company, topped by a number of chandeliers. Scorsese's filming didn't imitate the camera clichés of television variety shows, swooping past meaningless decor, pulling focus on blurred lights, or combining closeups and full-body shots in double exposures. His angles are straightforward and powerful, brightly lit and sharply focused. It's all about the music, man ... Scorsese isn't trying to push a strong directorial presence, to the benefit of the show.

Added to the brew are interviews and 'behind the scenes' monologues with members of The Band, mostly Robertson, who describe how they got together, worked and lived for 14 years of obscurity and success, and particularly what life was like on the performing road. Depending on one's interest, this is going to be fascinating, or an unwelcome look at a group of men who smoke and drink and aren't all that compelling at first glance. Robbie Robertson is photogenic enough to have experienced a surge in popularity after The Last Waltz; he even became an actor for a short while, doing good work in Carny, for one example.

The guests are an eclectic bunch obviously invited by Robertson as representative of The Band's roots, yet perhaps weighed in favor of commercial desirability - which has to explain the presence of Neil Diamond, who looks very out of place. In some of the songs there's an uplifting feeling of fun and joy, with Neil Young uncharacteristically having the time of his life (he smiles! he laughs!). For some reason Joni Mitchell looks as if someone insulted her ... Bob Dylan was obviously a welcome name for the film marquee, but he was a major influence on the Band's development and thus no gate crasher. Ringo Starr's presence is barely felt, but he seems a very nice fellow, drumming away without drawing attention to himself. The Staples sound terrific singing 'The Weight' in the non-concert footage, and although Muddy Waters' performance of 'Mannish Boy' isn't as neatly covered as the other songs, it generates the expected power.

The Last Waltz was released nationwide in Dolby Surround and thrilled music fans who never got a chance to see acts like these in person; in 1978, just after the big Star Wars success, the film-student generation of filmmakers were tasting their first boxoffice victories, and most every one was at their height or about to achieve it - Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Milius, DePalma, the whole bunch. I saw The Last Waltz on a double bill with a reissue of a five-year-old movie that Universal had originally not wanted to release at all, American Grafitti - dolled up in remixed Dolby stereo surround as well. The Band had once before been the subject of a documentary by Bob Dylan from 1972 called Eat the Document, a collage of performances and 'happenings' from a European tour where they performed together. It isn't that well remembered, by people who saw it.

MGM's DVD of The Last Waltz presents the footage in a masterfully transferred 16:9 presentation, with a number of great extras. The Documentary does an excellent job of explaining the genesis of the show as told in retrospect by Scorsese and Robertson, who are both still proud as Punch over it. The diagrams of the lighting and the script - basically a camera and lighting cue sheet coordinated to each bar of music for each song, are fascinating to look at.

There are two audio commentaries with Scorsese and the musicians that are going to be must-hears for fans more music-oriented than Savant. There's also a comprehensive essay by Robbie Robertson in the insert. A special bonus is a long jam with the assembled Band and guests that served as the encore after the show. It's not transferred as well as the rest of the film, and the visual quits before the track does, because the one taking camera's magazine ran out. All of these are going to be treasured items for fans ... Savant has the old 1989 flat laserdisc, and there's just no comparison.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Waltz Special Edition rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentaries, new documentary, outtake performance.
Packaging: Keep case in paper sleeve
Reviewed: April 27, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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