The Band's Long Waltz
Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)
But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In," "Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson, whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all, women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies, finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last Waltz.
There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best, the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark, lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's mandolin.
A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last Waltz translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John? Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots, far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino], has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it, unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)
Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer to Robertson.)
Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in various configurations over the years.
Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last Waltz belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them. Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing bookend to The Band's career.