THE LAST WALTZ captures The Band's farewell concert performance, Thanksgiving, 1976. The Band first rose to fame as "The Hawks", Bob Dylan's original backup group for his live appearances in the mid-sixties. They later went on to create some of the finest, most intelligent rock music of the sixties and seventies, with their first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, often ranked as two of the best rock albums ever.
But THE LAST WALTZ is not a self-congratulatory movie about the group. Rather, it is about music. There are many genres represented in the film and even and even more so at the concert itself, from rock and roll to country, New Orleans jazz to blues, pure pop to folk. THE LAST WALTZ can only as good as the performances of The Band and their luminous list of guest stars allow to be, but as one might expect, with such a lineup of top-quality performers, supported by what was literally the world's greatest backup band, the film is a rock and roll classic.
There are some questionable figures on the roster (Neil Diamond?) and a handful of dull performances (even The Band can't saved a coked-up Neil Young's tedious dirge "Helpless"), but The Band trots out most of its most well-known numbers, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "Up on Cripple Creek" and a beautiful studio-staged version of "The Weight" featuring the Staples. The highlights of the guest performances include Ronnie Hawkins' "Who Do You Love?" ("The Hawks" backed Ronnie before they worked with Dylan), Van Morrison's rollicking "Caravan" and Bob Dylan's supercharged "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down". Other favorite moments: Eric Clapton's guitar strap slipping, with Robbie Robertson immediately launching into a blazing guitar solo to cover the moment; and Rick Danko's exquisite vocal on "It Makes No Difference", with Garth Hudson appearing out of nowhere toward the end to contribute an achingly poignant saxophone solo.
Martin Scorsese keeps the entire film flowing through the use of interviews with the members of The Band, who talk about life on the road as well as all their musical influences. Scorsese follows each story with a musical performance that tends to illustrate a particular genre or musical heritage brought up in the anecdotes. Thus, Neil Diamond represents professional songwriters of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building (Oh, so that's why he's here!) while Muddy Waters stands in for the blues, and so on.
The reputation of THE LAST WALTZ has suffered somewhat over the years. It has always been known that much of the music in the film had to be rerecorded in post-production, much like George Harrison's CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH. In the early 1990's, drummer Levon Helm's autobiography This Wheel's on Fire brought us behind the scenes, revealing THE LAST WALTZ to be, at least according to Helm, a vanity project cooked up by Robertson and Scorsese, with none of the other members of the group really committed to a break up. After reading Helm's book, in which his bitterness toward Robertson is full view, you may find yourself agreeing that the whole film is Robbie-centric, with relatively very few shots of keyboardists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, even when Manuel is singing a verse of the Dylan anthem "I Shall Be Released".Still, there is no denying that, post-dubbed or not, the music is what matters here, and on that level, THE LAST WALTZ delivers the goods and remains one of the finest concert films ever, as well as one of Martin Scorsese's best films. ½ - JB