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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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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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