Fuelled by supernatural quantities of cocaine and liquor, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of The Last Days of Sodom. Laden with rich, bloated and strung-out musicians suffering the effects of a decade or so of biblical excess, the film focuses on the farewell concert of influential folk/blues combo The Band at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in uptown San Francisco.
Musically, the concert itself is well below par. Neil Young is high as a kite and seemingly unaware of where he is; Lawrence Ferlinghetti performs one of the worst poetry readings in human history and a bored and a sweaty Van Morrison chooses the wrong occasion to develop a taste for Elvis-style sequin jumpsuits. It’s not all bad however. Old pro Muddy Waters plays a fine version of Mannish Boy and Neil Diamond – out of place and only there because The Band’s lead guitarist Robbie Robertson had produced his last album – sings an average song very well, but in general, nobody is on top form.
The best musical number by a country mile is a version of The Band’s classic The Weight featuring smiling soul quartet The Staple Singers, but this was a filmed on a sound stage after the concert along with a few other numbers that didn’t work during the live show. These scenes are beautifully shot and it’s obvious that Scorsese is much happier having total control of a studio environment rather than dealing with the unpredictability of live performance.
It is the interviews with the members of The Band which are the most interesting element of The Last Waltz. The years of touring had taken their toll both on their bodies and their relationship. Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson look on the verge of meltdown, whilst Rick Danko and Richard Manuel are in dire need of detox and a long stint in rehab – especially Manuel, who is a frail, wizened shadow of the handsome keyboard player/singer he was 10 years previously.
Levon Helm claimed in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire that Robertson and Scorsese (who became fast friends during the production) conspired to make The Band look like Robertson’s sidemen, and he does have a point. Robertson seems to be the director’s main focus and whilst Danko and Helm also get plenty of screen-time, Hudson and Manuel rarely appear on camera.
For all of its problems, The Last Waltz has been and will remain essential viewing for budding musicians and misty-eyed folks who hark back to a golden era when these rock gods ruled the earth. The film portrays these immortals in decline and if you want to read it as an Icarian morality tale the burnt-out husks of those who reached the dizzy heights of fame are on display for all to see, but there is plenty of light to balance the darkness.
Towards the end of the film the camera pans down from the heavens and reveals the long haired, hat wearing figure of an inexplicably fresh faced Bob Dylan looking like ‘Ezekiel with a stratocaster’ as a wise man once said.
Dylan leads The Band in a rendition of his slow and mournful hymn Forever Young (all a bit too nice and dreary), but halfway through – and obviously bored of the melancholy – he starts playing Baby Let me Follow You Down, an up-tempo dirty blues number that he used to do with The Band back in the day. It’s by no means the best version ever performed but the decision to change it up is inspired. For that moment of genius alone, The Last Waltz is well worth its ticket price.