Jan. 11, 2006

The Last Waltz (1978)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko

What it's about. Semi-legendary and highly regarded rock group The Band break up in style. Bandleader Robbie Robertson hires noted director Martin Scorsese to film background interviews and their final concert.

How others will see it. This is a movie for rock and roll historians, and classic rock fans and performers. Many famous guest stars appear (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, etc.) Even Ringo Starr and Ron Wood appear as representatives of the greatest British bands, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Last Waltz is an interesting look at the demise of a rock band; second tier in terms of sales, but first class when judged by their musical abilities.

How I felt about it. The Band played in obscurity for much of the 1960s, until they were discovered by Bob Dylan, who recorded his Basement Tapes with them. Bandleader and great stinging guitarist Robertson emerged as a formidable songwriter, and The Band had glory years in 1968 and 1969.

After that, the group returned to a touring routine. Their creativity was gone, but they remained great musicians. The Last Waltz documents their stage talents and personalities. Robertson is the leader, but drummer Levon Helm is the primary vocalist, and he's got a great bluesy rasp.

Rick Danko is the third most important member. As the second vocalist, his tenor yelp is suitable, but his limitations are obvious in comparison with Van Morrison, who shows up to sing "Caravan." The other members are organist Garth Hudson and jack-of-all-trades Richard Manuel, who sings now and then but mostly lurks in the background.

Tired (and even afraid) of road life, Robertson calls it quits, and his bandmates go along with the plan. Robertson, Scorsese, and legendary promoter Bill Graham gather a mostly all-star lineup for the final show, Thanksgiving 1976.

Noted rock stars abound, but the biggest highlight is unexpected. The Staple Singers join in "The Weight," and a rock classic merges into soul. Of course, other moments also stand out: Neil Young and "Helpless," Clapton and Robertson exchange guitar fills for "Further On Down the Road," and Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison give indications of why they were critically acclaimed stars a few years prior. Old man Muddy Waters still has the fire to deliver "Mannish Boy."

Neil Diamond also has a portentious number that somehow made it into the film. He's the odd man out on this big night, along with boisterous Ronnie Hawkins, who had fronted the future Band in their formative years.

Robertson obviously has a post-Band plan, and if nothing else, he's got several Scorsese soundtracks ahead of him. The other members, however, appear lost without their respected leader. This is most apparent when the off-camera Scorsese asks Danko what he's now up to. Danko plays a solo recording, his thin voice backed by a pallid acoustic track. Good luck Rick, you'll need it.