The Last Waltz

Movie Review #920


Nationwide release on April 26, 1978. Limited re-release on April 5, 2002. Documentary/Music. This film is rated PG. Rated R before appeal. Runs 117 minutes. American production. Director: Martin Scorsese. Treatment: Mardik Martin. Cast: The Band, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, The Staples, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Michael Mc Clure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Martin Scorsese.


By Alexander Diminiano

The Last Waltz was held in the Winterland Ballroom (San Francisco) on American Thanksgiving Day, 1976. It was intended to be The Band’s final performance. Martin Scorsese captures that aura in his same-titled documentary account. The movie gets more and more engrossing. Suddenly, it’s been two hours, the final cymbal crashes, the final string is strummed. The Band thanks us, bids us goodnight and tells us to go home. As well as he creates an atmosphere that involves us in the rock n’ roll of the music, Scorsese also effectively paints the bittersweet taste of leaving a concert by the time the credits start rolling.

Though The Band planned The Last Waltz as more of a public “celebration” than it was a concert. And a celebration it was. 42 live performances (about half of which are seen in this two-hour documentary) from The Band along with plenty more faces. This is the It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World of concert films. Eric Clapton. Neil Diamond. Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Van Morrison. Muddy Waters. The Beatles’ Ringo Starr. The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood. Stills. Young. There’s more.

These folks are billed as “guests” in “The Last Waltz”. The Band is at the front of the show, or at least should be. The real focus here is on Robbie Robertson, The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter, as well as the film’s producer. He’s given the spotlight as if he were Elvis Presley and the other four were The Jordanaires. But there’s no denying that The Last Waltz contributed to The Band’s success as a unit. Had the film not so well publicized this event, The Band might not have reunited in the mid-’80s for another three studio albums.

What Martin Scorsese does as the director of “The Last Waltz” is very creative. He eyes it more as a cross between a drama and a concert film than as a straightforward documentary. Every interview is a scene rooted in dialogue, while we watch the Band playing pool or making coffee. Every performance is an up close and personal view for the audience of the audience, and every moment is photographed in a manner that makes the film as impressive to the eyes as it is to the ears.

And there ain’t no doubt about it: this music is terrific. Right after the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opener, and right before that of United Artists, a title card fills the screens: “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” Damn straight it should be. Play it loud or don’t bother playing it at all. However, part of me feels that “The Last Waltz” may have been somewhat more enjoyable as a record than as a movie. The fact that these guys’ll play as long as they feel like is beyond awesome, but it also makes the pacing rigid when we’re flipping back and forth between interviews and live performances.