Movie Review: The Last Waltz, staring The Band

I mentioned a couple days ago that I would write a review for the film The Last Waltz, which is a Martin Scorsese directed piece documenting The Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving of 1976.  As I mentioned in my previous post on The Band, watching the film has become a yearly Thanksgiving tradition in my home.

The film alternates between the band performing various songs from their catalogue, with short clips of them being interviewed by Scorsese and occasional performances featuring The Band and several musical guest.  The include The Band’s former leaders and mentors Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, as well as Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, The Staple Singers, Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield.  In other words it show cases one of the greatest rock bands of all time with, performing along side some of their most talented contemporaries and a few living legends.  Generally speaking all of these musicians either influenced The Band or were influenced by The Band.

Highlight performances include Neil Young’s rendition of Helpless, which also features Joni Mitchell singing along side the band (this has to be as much Canadian music talent as I have ever seen in one place), as well Van Morrison’s high energy rendition of Caravan and Muddy Waters’ performance of his blues classic Mannish Boy (featuring Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield).  For Emmylou Harris’ rendition of Evangeline, the members of The Band switch instruments, and create a softer more relaxed sound, featuring drummer Levon Helm on the mandolin.  Also of note is Joni Mitchell’s performance of Coyote and some dueling guitar action between Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson.

Songs that the band performs without the help of big name friends are also impressive.  They sound, tight and high energy.  While Rick Danko sings most of the songs, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel also have some great vocal performances.  As noted earlier, there are a few songs that showcase the bands abilities as multi-instrumentalists, including a few in which Garth Hudson gets up from his keyboards to perform on the saxophone.  Many of their classics are played including the Weight (which features the Staple Singers), Shape I’m in, Up on Cripple Creek, Stage Freight and The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down.  The show also features The Band in a frantic Bo Diddley cover with their former front-man Ronnie Hawkins, and a couple excellent songs with their other former leader Bob Dylan.  It closes with a rendition of I Shall Be Released in which everyone present participates.

Between shots we see interviews of the band featuring Martin Scorsese.  They talk about music, tell wild stories from their years as a traveling bar band, and generally come of as ordinary working class guys who hit it big.  I do have to acknowledge the criticism that the film did give a bit more attention to Robbie Robertson than the rest of the Band, but generally everyone contributes and this really does not diminish the quality of the film.  I’ll also acknowledge that I found Neil Diamond’s piece Dry Your Eyes to be the weakest performance in the film, though it is still good, despite many of the people, involved in the project, wondering what he was doing there.

In short the film is awesome and if you like the sort of roots oriented, classic rock of any of the artist mention above you should check it out.  I will also mention that to me this film captures the end of an era.  Not only is it the last performance of the band (until the regroup many years later), but it marked an age where the rural, old-time influenced stripped down, classic rocks of these performers was about to be upstaged by the more urban sounds of Punk, New Wave, Disco and the second wave of heavy metal.  For better or worse, this marked the end of what many consider the classic rock era.


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One Response to Movie Review: The Last Waltz, staring The Band

  1. Pingback: Joni Mitchell – River | Observation Blogger

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