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 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 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.