Watching "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's film of the Band's last concert in 1976, I thought, "This is where I came in." That is, the music preserved in the film-which has been freshened up and technically fussed over for a 25th anniversary reissue on CD and DVD and in theaters in a handful of big cities-is the music I grew up on: late '60s and early '70s rock.
Or, more precisely, music that today would be called alt-rock or roots rock, categories that the Band almost single-handedly invented. Or, if they didn't, they share the credit with the other performers in this movie: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Muddy Waters. Ironically, this film preserves these talents at the height of their popularity. As performers, only Neil Young and Dylan would continue to matter both critically and commercially in the decades that followed. But the influence of these people was something else. That would live.
The Band never had a big hit on the radio, and their albums, while critically acclaimed, were also modest sellers. But they were always favorites with the critics. Lead guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson wrote songs you could analyze and dissect-just like writing a term paper! He filled his lyrics with images of ex-Civil War soldiers, medicine shows and farmers down on their luck. I always thought "Unfaithful Servant" sounded like a parable that got left out of the Bible. On top of that, the Band nearly all wore beards and favored somber suits over the Day-Glo of the day. They looked sort of like the Amish on acid. Plus, they had that semicryptic name-the Band-and they'd been Bob Dylan's back-up band before going out on their own (before Dylan, they'd backed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, a fact that endears them to me today much more than the Dylan connection). All this gooey mythology began adhering to them, about how they exemplified the roots of American music and how that music exemplified the soul of the country, etc. All of which was sort of true until they started believing their own press releases.
The music on the first two Band albums, "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band," is mythic and mysterious and fun, all at once, and no one sounds like they're trying too hard. After that, the group kept making albums, but with the exception of a song here and there, they did sound like they were trying too hard. They would reunite with Dylan for another tour and an album. They put out a live album of their own ("Rock of Ages") that still ranks as one of the best concert albums ever. And then with the "Last Waltz," a huge all-night concert at Bill Graham's Winterland in San Francisco in '76, they called it quits. It was the right call.
Several years later some of the band members reunited, but the albums they produced were just so-so. It was one of those anticlimaxes that you just wanted to end quickly, but no one wanted it to end the way it did, with Richard Manuel hanging himself in a Florida motel room in 1986 and Rick Danko dying in 1999 in Woodstock, N.Y. When I first saw "The Last Waltz" and heard the musicians, especially Robbie Robertson, talk about how the musician's life on the road was a killer, I wrote it off to the mushwit romanticism that beclouds so much about pop music. Duke Ellington stuck it out for most of a century, I wanted to say, and you're no Duke Ellington. But now, I'd have to admit they were horrifyingly prescient.
The first time I saw "The Last Waltz," back in the '70s, I thought it was a pretty good movie, and I came away thinking mostly about the music. This time around, I paid less attention to the music (in the years intervening, I've come to think that it's nearly impossible to convey what music is like on either film or television). It was the filming that got me this time. Scorsese choreographs the cinematography like he's filming a Vincente Minnelli MGM musical from the '50s. The camera work is never obtrusive, the editing is never flashy, everything serves the songs being sung onstage. But there's a rhythm to it, and everything swings. There are only a couple of jarring elements: two or three songs, featuring the Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris, were shot later on a soundstage and inserted into the midst of the concert footage. And what in the world was Neil Diamond doing in that line-up of talent that night at the Winterland? Other than that, though, everything combines to make a real movie with real emotional power, and not just footage from a concert.
While 25 years have sheared away any immediacy that the film once had, it now looks like what it is-a documentary of a particular band at a certain point in cultural history. This was a time when you could put a bluesman like Muddy Waters, a folkie like Joni Mitchell, rhythm-and-blues singer-songwriters like Bobby Charles and Dr. John and rockers like Neil Young and Ron Wood on the same stage and have it all make sense. Musical labels were more free floating then, musical possibilities were more open. Few of those people got on the radio much back then, because Top 40 still ruled. Now they all have their niche stations, because nearly all music comes with a handy label these days, but the audience is fragmented, not to say dissipated. I wouldn't say the music was better then, but it was more interesting because you literally never knew what was going to happen next. "The Last Waltz," as a movie and a soundtrack, captures that feeling perfectly.