As part of my mad dash to see at least 15 classic or non-new release films on the big screen in 2012, I was recently afforded an opportunity to see Martin Scorsese’s concert documentary about The Band, The Last Waltz (1978). I had seen 24 Scorsese films prior to The Last Waltz. As you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of holes in my Scorsese viewing experience. But The Last Waltz was one of those holes. Much like my pseudo-reviews for two previous big screen items, North by Northwest and The Bride Wore Black, I have quite bit to say about The Last Waltz but nothing that could be melded into a cogent review. That being the case, here are a bunch of rambling thoughts about it.
This film was a perfect example of why I’m watching classics on the big screen. The film begins with a title card issuing the edict that “This film should be played loud!”. I never could have attained the sound quality needed at home. In the comfort of a theater, I could find myself completely immersed in the various performances. And frankly, I’ve tended to struggle with concert films in the past. The sub-genre isn’t exactly up my alley. Any little edge I could get, I was glad to take. Not surprisingly, I wound up loving the movie–5 out of 5 stars–whereas if I’d seen it at home, I doubt I’d be speaking about it so glowingly.
The first noteworthy thing that I really have to point out is Van Morrison’s performance. If you haven’t seen it, Morrison’s performance is inspiring… and also hilarious. He showed up on stage wearing what appeared to be a red velvet blazer with a matching pair of pants. Underneath was a v-neck t-shirt that was probably three sizes too small, showing off his man-boobs. Actually, the red velvet was too tight as well because I chuckled several times watching his fat ass leaping and kicking across the stage. None of that diminishes his performance of his song, Caravan. It was appropriately intense, ending with him dropping the microphone on the stage and stumbling off the stage, looking like he was high or drunk or both. It even elicited some grins from members of The Band.
And how about The Band? When you’re cooking with mushrooms, they tend to take on the flavor of whatever dish they’re in. And that’s exactly what The Band did, just like mushrooms in an entree. As one unique performer after another came out to perform with them, The Band absorbed the unique flavor of their guest performers each time. In itself, that’s quite a feat. But mixed in, they were also doing top-flight versions of their own songs. I’ve always sort of liked The Band. I’ve never been a huge fan, but I have enjoyed them. I get the feeling that I’m about to become a pretty big fan in the coming weeks and months.
The list of legendary guest performers is staggering. It includes Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Pops Staples, Emmylou Harris, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, and Paul Butterfield. You can’t tell me that Joni Mitchell wasn’t the inspiration for Janice from Electric Mayhem of Muppet fame (though technically I am aware that her name is an homage to Janis Joplin). I’ve disliked Neil Diamond since I was a kid. My enjoyment of this film notwithstanding, I still don’t like the guy. His performance was the most uncomfortable I felt during the whole film. Neil Young’s performance of Helpless with The Band playing backup warmed my heart. I honestly didn’t know much about Paul Butterfield or Ronnie Hawkins beforehand, but now I’ll be doing some research after enjoying their performances. I had to chuckle at the end when all of the guest performers came out on stage. They were all standing there and just before they sang their final song, I secretly hoped they’d perform We Are the World, even if that song was 8 years away from being created.
It’s just my opinion, and music is so subjective anyway, but I thought the performances by Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Morrison were the best. That trio completely burnt the house down with their respective songs. I imagine I’ll be purchasing the soundtrack soon, specifically because of that trio. And it’s saying something for me to identify those three before Dylan and Neil Young, who are two of my all-time favorites.
As for it being a Scorsese film, Scorsese handled it masterfully. You barely knew he was there, and that’s a wonderful deft touch for any documentarian to add. For a filmmaker as noteworthy as Scorsese to pull it off takes it to another level. He employed seven of the best cameramen around. Per Wikipedia: The cameras were operated by several cinematographers, including Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). Having that many accomplished cinematographers gave the film a really unique extra dimension, because each clearly had their own style. What came out was a fascinating Frankenstein of pans, close-ups, and tracking shots, each employed differently from song to song, always with the subject–the concert–in the front seat, driving the film.
Admittedly, my enjoyment of the film was aided quite a bit by my natural affinity for this kind of music. The list of guest performers includes many of my favorite musicians. Throw in the big screen and it was truly a great theatre experience.