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DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: “The Last Waltz”

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During the oddball January clash between straggling awards-season fare and low-heat studio releases hoping to die a quiet death, it’s really a “whoever wins, we lose” kind of situation: few of the real critical knockouts take until the new year to find audiences, and the studio dregs often demand that their audience be literally knocked out in order to survive them. Simultaneously, there are only a handful of worthwhile home video releases since most of the films were released during the previous time of year when titles are dumped – late August and early September. But Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam 20” turned up last week on Blu-ray, and the musicphile filmmaker does an amazing job chronicling the serpentine history of Eddie Vedder and company as they go through more than two decades of changes, transformations and upheavals. And it also harkened back to earlier days of rock & roll documentaries, perhaps the most celebrated of which is Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.”

As such, it seemed like a good time to revisit Scorsese’s film, primarily to see how relevant and engaging it is today in an era where folks like yours truly experience a much stronger and more immediate sense of nostalgia watching, well, footage of more recent groups like Pearl Jam. Consequently, “The Last Waltz” is the subject of this week’s Shelf Life.


The Facts:

“The Last Waltz” was released on April 28, 1978, and as directed by Scorsese the film was meant to chronicle the end of many, many years of touring by The Band. Scorsese was a fan of the group’s music and agreed to film a farewell concert, eventually enlisting a who’s who of great Hollywood cinematographers, including Michael Chapman, Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Storyboarding the lighting cues and camera angles meticulously, Scorsese created what is widely regarded as the greatest rock & roll documentary of all time, if only as a seemingly comprehensive portrait of performances from a group of the music industry’s greatest talents of that time.

While it won few formal awards – including Best Documentary from the Kansas City Film Critics Circle in 1979 – it continues to enjoy almost universal acclaim from critics, including a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works:

There are, quite frankly, few fiction films, much less documentaries, that are as beautiful and well-shot as “The Last Waltz.” As indicated above, Scorsese’s extensive storyboarding of every song provided his camera operators with ideal lighting and photography conditions, and their camera movements were coordinated and controlled by Scorsese throughout virtually the entire concert recording – and certainly in the studio sequences. While it should come as little surprise to Scorsese’s fans, the camerawork often closely resembles the quick, fluid, and often unpredictable movement of the cinematography in his fiction films, and while those shots sometimes feel like non sequiturs to the performance or action, they somehow contribute to the overall tone and feeling of the performances, creating a sense of controlled chaos – that The Band and their guest performers were harnessing something that was unable to be tamed and bending it to their will.

Perhaps needless to say, the performances are all virtuoso renditions of so many of The Band’s classic songs, as well as a cross-section of tunes from the other artists with whom they shared the stage. Meanwhile, the interstitial interview footage with the group, sometimes individually and sometimes together, gives the whole piece an aesthetic cohesiveness that bounces back and forth between being verbally defined and physically demonstrated. At the same time, the band members’ various anecdotes and observations add color and humanity to their incredible songwriting and performance skills, giving the viewer a deeper sense of who these guys are, not just how well they manipulate their instruments.


What Doesn’t Work:

The main problem with virtually any documentary like this is that you probably need at least some prior knowledge of the band’s music beforehand, or at the very least an appetite for the kind of music that they performed – specifically, ‘70s country-rock with a significant blues influence. There’s certainly a timelessness to The Band’s music, but enjoyment of it is enhanced significantly if you actually know the songs and actively embrace their style. At the same time, the documentary is literally capturing the end of an era, which means that its focus is to an extent looking back at the legacy of the group, certainly documented through interview footage, but it’s also a time capsule of that specific moment in The Band’s history rather than a real or more extensive retrospective. That’s not necessarily a problem for some viewers, but it may leave others stranded without a more comfortable sense of the history, relationships and overall context of what’s happening in the film.

The underlying problem of Scorsese’s approach – at least evidenced by the final product – is that he focused too heavily on Robertson as a driving creative force within the band. Singer Levon Helm later disputed that the film accurately portrayed the group dynamic, and looking at it now, you can see why the other band members would be upset: Robertson dominates the majority of the interview materials, even in sequences featuring all of the members, and it creates an, if not deeply subjective portrait of the band, then an uneven one that misrepresents exactly how they worked, and who they were as a unit.


The Verdict:

“The Last Waltz” holds up and remains one of the great rock & roll documentaries of all time – if you are a fan of The Band’s music. As an appreciator but no passionate follower of their music, I appreciate the quality of their performances and the sheer volume of talent they recruited to play with them at this grand finale, but I didn’t feel a deeper connection with either The Band or their music as I watched the documentary now. Again, that’s not an indicator of the film’s quality as a whole – whose technical bona fides are indisputable and superlative – but if “The Last Waltz” isn’t the first place some younger music listener would go to, it’s understandable.

Do you think “The Last Waltz” holds up as much as we do? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.