When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out, although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at San Francisco’s Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese’s typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America’s underbellies, and monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz teeters between grit and awe–perhaps unintentionally but tellingly, like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz “the most beautiful rock movie ever.” As a formalist she had a point. With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the industry’s search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side Story. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It’s an elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era. The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of the connecting interview segments–though those too are frequently tinged with Scorsese’s romanticism.
When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-“Like a Rolling Stone” model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version of long-available bootlegs.)
After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement. But the smartest word was he’d been hanging out at Big Pink, a nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock’s Overlook Mountain, jamming and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs; selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement Tapes [Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, “Tears of Rage,” and closed with another, “I Shall Be Released.”