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Last Waltz (The Criterion Collection), The

The Criterion Collection // PG // March 29, 2022
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted March 30, 2022 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

When it comes to ranking concert films, the best always seem to have The Last Waltz at or near the top of a very short list. For those unfamiliar with the production, the film centers around the farewell concert of The Band, the Canadian group who helped Bob Dylan transform and expand creatively in the ‘60s, and Dylan's assistance in their album "Music from Big Pink" was retribution for this. The album continues to be widely regarded as a very influential piece of music decades after its release. The group continued to release albums and tour at a frenetic pace, until Robertson had finally grown weary of the pace in 1976. Rather than hold a simple farewell concert, which would have been the easy choice, The Band decided to make the event a celebration of their careers in a very pure sense. They decided to hold it on Thanksgiving at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, where they held their first live performance seven years earlier. They fed the several thousand concertgoers before bringing them the group's work. And little did the fans know they would be witness to one of the great live performances captured on film.

Robertson decided to bring Martin Scorsese onto the project, as he was familiar with Scorsese's work with the Woodstock concert film. Fresh from his success with Taxi Driver, the director had a fondness for the music, and he decided to approach the concert with an eye towards film production, and it was done in a very logical manner. Scenes and shots were plotted out based on moments within the song, and the audience was rarely shown. The performance was the main source of enjoyment, and rightfully so, and the performers are captured in ways that few have been able to recreate.

Consider the moment when Neil Young performs "Helpless" (with Joni Mitchell providing background vocals behind a curtain so as to not reveal her identity), when he's getting his harmonica ready, there's a quick glimpse of the stage musicians trying to get the volume right on his microphone. When it's ready, Young looks over at Robertson with a grin that can only be described as pleasure and anticipation, in looking forward to the performance and connecting with the audience.

And yes, you read that right, Young and Mitchell appeared as guests of the group that perform on stage. Initially, The Band was going to invite a few friends to the show, notably ex-member Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan, and along with the aforementioned Young and Mitchell, you've got Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr, all joining in the festivities and performing. It's the performances and the people who know and love the music (even Neil Diamond) came together and performed over the house of several hours, and leaving the audience with memories to last the rest of their lives. Scorsese captured many of the images that night, along with the connections and the spirit and even some candid moments among performers that make you understand why it's a special film.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

A digital restoration was done for Criterion in preparation for this release at the UHD, the latter of which I don't have. But the Blu-ray looks really good, film grain being able, image noise inherent in the picture and colors in clothes like Morrison's jumpsuit and Helm's shirt looking natural without oversaturation. Flesh tones are warm and faithful as well, and while I no longer have the (2002 release) I feel confident in saying this is probably a step above it.

The Sound:

The disc is given a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track and 2 two-channel tracks, one in DTS-HD and one in LPCM. I tried to listen to them on the fly as best as I could and the six-channel's ability to isolate the music into the front channels really is worth exploring, with the LPCM track being broader and more balanced, and the DTS two-channel being the ‘weakest.' Crowd noise is natural and music sounds great throughout.

The Extras:

Extras from the aforementioned 2002 release are ported over here (sans still gallery), with some new Criterion stuff tossed in. Scorsese talks with David Frear (31:31) about being approached to do the film and his intent for it, and how shooting it helped him with his films (specifically Raging Bull). He talks about when he saw The Band for the first time and what he liked about them, and using music as metaphors for larger moments in life. A nice little update, and a more dated ‘new' extra is when he and Robertson appear on a 1978 talk show and talk about much of the same material in the film (15:03), which is a nice inclusion.

From there, you know everything else; the first commentary (with Robertson and Scorsese) is predictably good as they talk about the film, the music and other things, in a track that is edited together. The other track with Helm, Ronnie Hawkins and others is almost as required as well, between both tracks you are covered for this film. "Revisiting The Last Waltz" (22:31) looks at the moments in the film, filming, and the group itself, and a jam session (12:15) looks at just that. The trailer (2:45) and a TV spot (:32) round things out.

Final Thoughts:

The Last Waltz remains fascinating viewing a half century later for showing how weary The Band became after nonstop touring on the road, abusing their bodies and each other, and being generous enough to put it all aside for one more time on stage together, and Scorsese captures it as you would hope, redefining the concert film for years to come. Criterion's work in putting out a new transfer and soundtrack are almost exclusively the reasons to upgrade it if you have the old MGM copies, and the new interview is fine too. But if you haven't seen The Last Waltz yet, go check it out.

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