After years playing together as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan, the quintent of Rick Danko (bass guitar, vocals, fiddle), Levon Helm (drums, vocals, mandolin, guitar), Garth Hudson (keyboards, accordion, saxophone), Richard Manuel (keyboards, drums, lap steel guitar, vocals), and Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals) became known as “The Band,” releasing Music from the Pink in 1968 followed in 1969 by their only platinum-selling album The Band. As I mentioned in my review of the Robertson documentary Once Were Brothers, their music “helped pave the way for country rock and Americana…before those terms were created.”
Moving through the ’70s, The Band weren’t attaining their previous commercial successes and concerns by Robertson about having already spent 16 years on the road led him and then the rest to decide they should give up touring. To commemorate this decision, they threw a farewell concert. Dubbed “The Last Waltz,” the concert was held on November 25 (Thanksgiving Day), 1976 at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco where The Band made its live debut in 1969. And what’s a party if you don’t invite friends? Among the guests The Band plays with are Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, and Neil Young.
Martin Scorsese was brought in as director to capture the event on film, and his camera operators included famed cinematographers Michael Chapman, László Kovács, and Vilmos Zsigmond. This idea turned out to be more significant than intended because not only was The Last Waltz the end of The Band touring, it was the end of The Band as the original members did not perform all together after its release in 1978.
The Last Waltz gets right down to business, opening with the words “The film should be played loud.” When first seen on stage, Robertson says they are going to do one more song, their cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” which concluded the concert. Scorsese creates his own setlist by rearranging the order of the songs from the way they played that night. Interspersed between the songs are interviews with The Band in various configurations conducted some time after the concert at their Shangri-La Studio. They talk about being musicians, about their influences, and about life on the road. When “The Weight” with The Staples comes up, it looks different. That’s because it was shot later in a studio as was “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris, even though both were played at the concert sans the guests.
The video is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The following text appears in the liner notes: “This new 4K digital restoration was created from a scan of the 35 mm original camera negative made in 16-bit resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner at Roundabout Entertainment in Burbank, CA. A 35 mm print courtesy of Sikelia Productions was used as a color reference.” The image presents strong earth tones and inky blacks. The back wall is lit in vibrant primary colors. There’s a small depth of field on the concert stage and during the interviews. Foreground objects have a sharp focus and good texture detail can be seen in clothing. The image is clean and free of dirt and defect.
The notes also say, “The 5.1 Surround soundtrack was remastered at from the 35mm optical tracks found on the same picture elements using Avid’s Pro Tools and iZotope RX.” The instruments have great clarity and showcase a wide dynamic range. The cymbals can be heard alongside the rocking guitars. The brassy horns augment the arrangements. The music volume is louder than the interviews, and during the latter it sounds like Scorsese isn’t miked as his questions are hard to make out. The audio options also include the original 1978 2.0 surround mix and a PCM stereo mix from 2001.
The director approved special edition features include:
- Two audio commentaries. One with Scorsese and Robertson, recorded separately. The second, titled The Band and Others includes Helm and Hudson, along with journalists, film crew members and performers such as Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, and Mavis Staples.
- Martin Scorsese and David Fear (HD, 32 min) – Recorded in 2021, the director chats with the Rolling Stone senior editor reflecting on The Band and the film.
- Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson, 1978 (SD, 15 min) – The pair were interviewed on the CBC’s 90 Minutes Live on April 14, 1978. Magician Ricky Jay makes a cameo.
- Revisiting The Last Waltz (SD, 23 min) – A 2002 Documentary about the making of the film
- Outtake: Jam Session 2 (HD, 12 min) – From the concert, The Band and a number guests, including two who didn’t appear in the film (Carl Radle and Stephen Stills) do “some informal jamming.”
- Trailer and TV spot
The Last Waltz is a joyous celebration of music, and all the musicians are in fine form. It speaks volumes to the confidence of the Band that they don’t mind sharing the spotlight with their talented friends. It’s just a shame we didn’t get more from the night considering the film only presents about half the concert. I would have preferred that over the interviews, which while interesting weren’t compelling. This will especially appeal to music fans of this era because to twist a lyric from “Up on Cripple Creek,” it’s a classic rock dream if I ever did see one.