On November 25, 1976, one of the greatest concerts ever was held to celebrate a group of musicians who had been touring together for 16 years. Similarly, on March 6, 2016 friends, family, and acquaintances of fellow Film Club member Charlie Fish gathered to celebrate her birthday and the group’s 193rd screening. Fresh off a marathon of films just a week before, some of us might have felt that we’d watched enough films for 16 years so a celebration of such an achievement was in order. What an afternoon with plenty of laughs, cheering, applause (for an event nearly 40 years past), and so much singing along. Even after the ‘no-talking-no-texting’ warnings I’m so glad that we can do that kind of thing collectively as a group and that it’s ok to sing along to a concert film that’s played LOUD.
A little basic background on the band and The Last Waltz itself because after I typed the rest of this article, I noticed that there were barely any names in it. The Band was a Canadian-American musical group that started as The Hawks in 1964, but changed their name to The Band after touring with Bob Dylan in 1966 since they were always billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. After 16 years of touring on the road, they performed one last show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, California on November 25, 1976. Members of the Band at the time were Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson.
So, where else do I start with a review of The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz, but with my own exposure and discovery of the group. I came across The Band when one of my own favorite bands (Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers) started doing an A Capella cover of “Up On Cripple Creek” as a way to end their shows and give an experience to their fans that couldn’t be found off a CD, T-shirt, poster, or LIVE recording. In 2005, Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers was comprised of Stephen Kellogg, Kit Carlson, Brian Factor, and Chris Soucy. Stephen and Kit met in high school and met Brian when they found out they needed a drummer for their little band. Chris was added to the group in 2004 shortly before the group’s major label release with Universal Music, after which they returned to self and independent released albums. After learning the ropes of not just playing their songs, but involving the audience from several tours with Matt Nathanson, the Sixers developed their own on-stage antics and when the time came that they had to opportunity to plan and perform a show for their first DVD, they modeled it after The Last Waltz. Filmed at the David Friend Recital Hall in Boston, MA (Massachusetts being thier home state) shortly after Thanksgiving on November 29, 2005, the Sixers recorded a show that they released as The First Waltz. Borrowing not only the concert/interview style of Scorsese, they ended up doing their own twist on guest performances by their touring friends, but even some of the staging of the interview segments (case in point, electric guitar player Chris Souse dead asleep in the back of the Sixer’s fan doing a road trip similarly posed like Richard Manuel as Manuel was explaining the the origin of “The Band”‘s ubiquitous name. Of course I had to track down the original, and it fit perfectly with my love of 70’s music. I was raised on James Taylor and oldies, so the 70’s have always been my favorite music decade and the place I’d want to relive my 20’s should I be forced to take a one-way trip back in time.
So how about some tidbits about The Last Waltz that casual viewers might not notice? Well there’s the way that when Scorsese started his initial collaboration with The Band, in preparation for the show, he got together with their touring manager and production crew and picked their brains for who sang what parts, who played what solos on each of their songs, and then planned camera shots and spotlights on each of those parts for the film. As an ex Sound Guy and production buff it drives me nuts watching awards shows at how many missed mic cues or late camera shots take place on the most important broadcasts each year. Because of his research, Scorsese’s production crew only misses spotlighting a couple spontaneous events during the entire concert.
Another thing that I found when researching for this review is how much more of an event this was. It was the farewell show of a group going out on top. It was a LIVE concert being taped and recorded by a movie director. It was a LIVE recording intended for release as an album that still continues to be re-released with recovered tracks and performances. It was a full blown Thanksgiving dinner. There was a portion of the show involving ballroom dancing (of which photos exist). It was a cross section of older artists who are no longer with us, fresh faces at the time that have become their own brand of superstar, and an inspiration to an entire generation of musicians and artists of today who take the time to mine their own music past and see the value in creating music because it’s fun to so with friends.
There’s the events that created it, namely when The Band’s drummer Richard Manuel had both a car accident and boating accident in 1976. He had been drinking and taking drugs more and more at the same time he started expressing dissatisfaction with having to babysit the other acts that came on tour with him. These events necessitated the group’s decision to stop being a touring band and become a studio band which is quite evident in one of the interview segments where band members emphatically discuss how much constant touring beats a person up.
There’s the story of Neil Diamond finishing his part of the show, walking off stage and telling Bob Dylan to “follow that”, to which Dylan supposedly replied, “What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”. There are just so many facets to the event, that keep unfolding the more you dig into it, which is almost enough to make me back off so that there’s always
something left to come back to and discover.
Which brings me back around to how easy The Last Waltz is to just enjoy. Over the years I keep coming back to The Last Waltz, pulling it out and absorbing the sound, tone, and enjoyment of not only the audience but the musicians themselves. In all the time’s I’ve seen it, it continues to surprise and interest me and seeing it on the big screen with a receptive and responsive audience was a treat. I’d never caught the waltz part of the title until this viewing, seeing the members of The Band, playing The Last Waltz Suite, with the shadows of their instruments dancing on the stage with them. It was everything a person could hope for in a concert film, feeling like you’re actually there, and wanting to be. Being reminded that ‘Bands’ both old and new played and continue to play with the same fervor and joy, just because they like to do it with friends.