The Last Waltz: Forgotten Masterpiece

January 29, 2014
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From Mean Streets through to Gangs of New York (because I don’t count The Departed as an original classic, though it is damned good), Martin Scorsese is THE master of brilliant pieces of work. Anyone who has seen Goodfellas or Raging Bull must surely agree with that. His filmography is second to none, period. All genres covered, and not all starring Robert De Niro, though most do. He tackled dark comedy in The King of Comedy, classic drama (from a female perspective) in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the edge of society in Taxi Driver. He even turned his hand to musical in New York, New York though this was not his finest hour.

It was at this time however, and in this same genre, that perhaps Scorsese’s greatest movie was made. Filming the footage of The Bands farewell concert, in San Francisco’s rundown Winterland Ballroom during Thanksgiving in 1976, is a lesser-known but ultimately triumphant mix of gig and recollection of days on the road. It is simply incredible. Fans of rock and roll (in the traditional and greatest sense) must see this film.

Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese. Image by aspen rock /

For those unaware, The Band is the 5-piece (comprised of four Canadians and a gravel-voiced Arkansas drummer) most famous for being Bob Dylan’s band when he “went electric”.

They were envied by the Beatles and admired by the Stones; even Clapton went on record to say that he split his own group Cream because he knew they couldn’t be as good as The Band. So much was this the case that he even offered his services, repeatedly, to join the group.

Influenced by the music of the south of Carl Perkins, Bo Diddley, Sun Records and contemporary loud rock and roll accompaniment, The Band were perhaps the greatest unheralded band of all time.

Do not get me wrong, they do have a huge following, even to this day, but many people are still surprised on discovery that they didn’t know of them before. Chances are they did. For example, the iconic scene of Hopper and Fonda riding hogs down the road in Easy Rider was to the strains of ‘The Weight’ by The Band.

Backed by a full orchestra, this is less a gig and more a happening that stands the test of time.

The Last Waltz

Robbie Robertson’s songs and guitar playing are still among the biggest influences to this day on bands from all over the world. Robertson dissolved The Band after The Last Waltz, (the group did reform several times but never with Robertson, thus never with the greatest line up). Since then he has produced for the likes of Neil Young and Neil Diamond but is most recognized as Scorsese’s musical director on most of his films. Songs like Stagefright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek are amazing and backed beautifully.

The Band, unusually, sang in 3-part harmonies but mostly led by Drummer Levon Helm, who sadly passed in 2012. Helm revolutionized drumming, especially rock drumming more than most and Starr and Watts have both credited his style. Helm had an amazing rough, raw and real sounding vocal display which carried gravitas into the tunes.

Bassist and singer Rick Danko, who also was lost to us too soon, had the most amazing soulful voice, and resonated songs like Stagefright quite hauntingly.

Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson on keys (and about 100 other instruments too) sang and played beautifully.

Live music doesn’t transfer to film well, especially in a concert sense, as the one-take risk is often failed, but here Scorsese skillfully and with a certain amount of luck, brings together one of the greatest nights that rock and roll music has ever known and ever will know.

See it and play it LOUD.

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  1. They are absolutely great.
    Love “The Weight”
    Will check out the movie asap as it truly does sound awesome and not sure how I have missed it!

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