The Last Waltz: Martin Scorsese's Ultimate Rock n' Roll Movie

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The first thing Scorsese does is turn a concert stage into a cinematic landscape. A lot of this has to do with luck, gotta say, a camera’s gotta be pointing at the right spot at the right time when a musician hits the right note. Scorsese wouldn’t have caught Muddy Waters at all if it weren’t for a cameraman who was sick of listening to Marty hollering instructions in his ear and ripped out his ear piece. Happy accidents abound in music but the process of filmmaking usually strips those possibilities. It makes you appreciate it that much more when it happens.

Scorsese intercuts the concert footage with snippets of the band’s reminiscences. Apparently The Band played to an audience of three, including a one-armed stripper, at Jack Ruby’s club, the same Ruby who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the same Oswald who shot JFK. They went through their various band names. They tell stories about the first time they hit New York City and it hit back, making them believe that because they were staying at a hotel called The Times Square that they were actually in midtown.

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The Band themselves move easily through varied styles. They were always a great backing unit. The Band explores the blues’ roots with Muddy Waters and the blues then-present with Eric Clapton. They let Dr. John’s bayou tinkling ivory drive them. They “Helplessly” harmonize with the sad harmonica and acoustic guitar of Neil Young like muted Crosby, Stills and Nashes.The Band silently played the rests while Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites “The Loud Prayer.” They switch up instruments to change the sonic landscape completely for a fiddled-up Emmy Lou Harris. They get in Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and follow Neil Diamond down Tin Pan Alley. Neil Diamond, he’s looked the same for 100 years. They hit Joni Mitchell and let her run in a growing shuffle of white lines on the freeway.

Scorsese understands the world of the music industry beyond rock and roll. He made New York New York, with Robert DeNiro blowing sax and sex with Liza Minelli, with a constant eye on who’s smoking what in which bathroom. I read that Scorsese had to edit coke residue from Neil Young’s nose through rotoscoping, animating the sequence frame by frame. I looked out for it on this viewing and I think I saw a little bluish cartoon mustache pop up on old Neil, long may he run.

Scorsese and Robbie Robertson blew through a coke-fueled year living together and collaborating. Ultimately Robertson would lend his ear to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and Shutter Island.

The rest of The Band probably should have stayed on the road. Sure, as Robbie says, the road claimed some of the best: Buddy Holly, Jimi, Janis and Elvis, but The Band was fine on the road. They lost three members after The Last Waltz.

The Last Waltz is considered the best concert movie. It was shot on better cameras and had Martin Scorsese’s name on it, but does it really match the performances at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh? Scorsese turned the stage into a landscape, but it really is the fingers and throats that make a performance. The Last Waltz captures the community of rock shows: a quick puff of smoke or a line before taking the stage, talking with the other musicians during solos, sharing microphones and the easy familiarity that comes just from being in tune. A G is always a G, unless you’re Garth Hudson playing the sax, where a G is a Bb.

A version of this article originally ran on Thanksgiving Day 2014. We watch the movie every year, we may as well run the article every year.

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