When people hear the name “Martin Scorsese” the first thing they tend to think of is gangster movies. Making gems such as “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “The Departed” will do that. Apart from the gangster element, all of these movies have another thing in common: kick-ass soundtracks. Having lived through the 1960s, Scorsese knows good music, which he has shown in documentaries such as “Shine a Light,” “The Blues” and “The Last Waltz.” That last one was shot in 1978 and features the final concert of The Band who were accompanied on stage by performers such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Ringo Starr. Here is a movie for lovers of rock history and great filmmaking.
The original plan was for me to watch this great rock doc during one of the showings of the film club in the university of Sherbrooke in 2010. It would have been perfect since it was supposed to be the last evening. We would watch “The Last Waltz” before waltzing out of university and going our separate ways, but for some reason the guy in charge couldn’t get his hands on a copy so we watched “Ed Wood” instead. Also a good movie, but it’s a shame we couldn’t watch “The Last Waltz” because as the opening title card says, “This movie should be played loud!” Instead I ended up watching with the volume on medium on the Movie Network on a Friday night. Not as memorable, but definitely worth watching.
As the movie takes place in 1978 and I was born in 1986 I was not familiar with The Band, but I am familiar with most of the people who were on stage with them for their last performance together at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The complete list of artists who were on stage with them that night includes: Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan. Now, wouldn’t you like a time machine and get tickets for that?
But then again, that is why we have recording technology: to preserve special moments. When the person doing the recording is Scorsese, you know you will have a heck of a good show on screen. This being a documentary, there are segments where Scorsese interviews members of The Band to discuss life on the road and why they have decided to call it quits after 16 years.
There are interesting insights, such as how Bob Dylan was responsible for their rather generic name. There is also a certain sense of dread in the interviews, as the group mentions the dangers of being on the road for such a long time. They recall the lives it has claimed: Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.
Scorsese and The Band’s songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson collaborated musically on many other projects, such as “Mean Streets,” “Casino,” Gangs of New York” and “The Departed.” Most notably, “The Departed” features a 1990 version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” performed by Van Morrison and The Band.
I did not get to see “The Last Waltz” on the big screen, but I did see “Shine a Light” in cinema. Also shot by Scorsese it is similar in format as he records a concert by The Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2006. Whereas The Band chose to stop after 16 years, the Stones have been going at it for 50 years.
Although it clearly marks the end of an era in rock’n’roll history, fans of great music and great concert films should see “The Last Waltz” even if they have never heard of The Band. They should then watch “Shine a Light” to compare how one great band chose to stop, and one has been touring on and off for half a century. Bonus: the man who gave the world “Casino” made both of them.