“Last Waltz” more than just a concert film
Any movie that starts with a cue card that reads, “This Film Should be Played Loud!” has its priorities straight.
This is how Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978) begins, and it’s a fitting opening because the film’s subject is music.
But the cue card is also apt because “The Last Waltz” is a celebratory, ecstatic jubilee of a film that cries out to be blared loudly and without apology.
The film is part documentary and part concert film, and its subject is The Band, a revered rock group that played during the ’60s and ’70s heyday of rock ‘n’ roll.
What makes “The Last Waltz” special is that it examines a rock group at the end of its career.
The Band, led by guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm, decide to break up at the height of its career. Why? Because living on the road, according to Robertson, is “a damn impossible way of life.”
The interviews with The Band are skillfully done by director Martin Scorsese. Even though he occasionally comes off as a starry-eyed groupie, Scorsese’s enthusiasm for The Band is infectious, and the questions he puts to the various members elicit some great responses about music and the road.
However, the best part of “The Last Waltz” is the concert itself. The Band puts on a simmering and rapturous concert, and Levon Helm, in particular, drums and sings as if his life were at stake and his only shot at redemption was to put on a hell of a show.
You can’t help by smile and laugh and enjoy The Band’s performance, but at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of sadness because this is its final concert together.
The concert segments of the film are further amplified by the presence of some of rock’s royalty, including Neil Yong, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.
But undeniably, the greatest guest star The Band managed to finagle into performing with them is blues legend Muddy Waters, who performs an utterly incendiary version of the song “Mannish Boy” that is so sizzling-hot it threatens to scorch the screen.
“The Last Waltz” truly achieves its greatness toward its end when we realize that the film is about more than just The Band or the music of the ’60s and ’70s.
It is a film about impermanence, about change and about how sometimes the only way to deal with that change is to throw one last hurrah.
A last waltz, if you will.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com