Most of the time, when you associate turkey and film, it means you’re talking about a movie that’s either unwatchable or laughable. The Last Waltz is neither of these. Martin Scorsese hasn’t made many turkeys and The Band didn’t carve that many bad notes into the grooves of their albums. But Mike Cecchini, the fearless leader of Den of Geek, associates this movie with turkey and asked me to pour the gravy. This writer will probably just mash his potatoes. The mashed potato was a dance in the early sixties, but it wasn’t a waltz. A waltz is a song in three-four time. That’s a good beat that you can dance to.
The Last Waltz was the Thanksgiving feast The Band threw for their fans and themselves before they planned to retreat from the stage and into the studio. The Band had been together sixteen years at that point, after having slowly, one by one, taken over Ronnie Hawkins’ The Hawks. Hawkins lured the young musicians to life on the road not with promises of riches, but that they’d get “more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
They’d done the bad rooms and the good rooms and were no longer hungry to be out on the road. Though they were all multi-instrumentalists, the band that night was Rick Danko on bass, Levon Helm on drums, Garth Hudson on keyboards, Richard Manuel on piano and Robbie Robertson on guitar. Every member sang lead or backup but to watch the concert footage, you might think Robbie was the new Ronnie, even when The Hawk himself hits the stage. Except when they make Rick Danko look like he’s alone on the stage for half-song lengths.
The concert for The Last Waltz happened Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It was advertised as The Band’s “farewell concert appearance.” For their last show, The Band brought out Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield, The Staples and Eric Clapton. They also convinced Bob Dylan, who had a long history with The Band, to perform in front of the cameras. Ringo Star and Ron Wood help release him.
The Band also brought a Thanksgiving dinner for the audience. Hence our vegetarian editor’s turkey fixation.
I was never really a big fan of The Band. Sure, I appreciated Robbie Robertson’s mathematical guitar and the subtle southern funk underneath the Canadian country veneer. They were great musicians, real rock and rollers from the old school, and they had catchy songs that always seemed to hit the radio. I know them best from this film and from the work they did with Bob Dylan. Legendary stuff, a year-long jam session in the backwoods of Woodstock and a private studio, it is still spawning bootlegs.
The Band is in good form and, for the most part, good voice throughout the show. Rick’s vocals occasionally trip over his energetic bass, but to be honest, that can be a bitch. Levon, singing behind the drums, never once lets the bass drum push the wind out of his sails. He never misses a beat even as he gets lost in singing and still has time to smile at the Staples as he more than happily hands off the lead.
Martin Scorsese was chosen for The Last Waltz based on his work on Mean Streets. The opening here with Rick Danko at the pool table is reminiscent of the poolroom war that started over the word mook. “The idea is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off. The game is called cutthroat,” Danko says and proceeds to put his balls on the table. While a small orchestra plays a waltz, Scorsese sets the scene. Coming off the littered streets of seventies San Francisco, past abandoned cars and Robinson’s Liquor store and the bellbottomed crowd with the flowers in their hair and into the theater, the audience sees that Scorsese also set the table. There are chandeliers and everything.
Scorsese always had a natural feel for the right cinematic blend of music and visuals. He was no stranger to the concert film or the rock and roll film. He was a cameraman and editor on Woodstock and followed Elvis Presley around for Elvis On Tour. Scorsese continues mining his rock and roll roots to this day, making documentaries about George Harrison and Bob Dylan, shooting The Rolling Stones in concert and producing and directing the pilot episode of Vinyl, HBO’s series about the seventies music scene.
The first thing Scorsese does is turn a concert stage into a cinematic landscape. A lot of this has to do with luck, gotta say, a camera’s gotta be pointing at the right spot at the right time when a musician hits the right note. Scorsese wouldn’t have caught Muddy Waters at all if it weren’t for a cameraman who was sick of listening to Marty hollering instructions in his ear and ripped out his ear piece. Happy accidents abound in music but the process of filmmaking usually strips those possibilities. It makes you appreciate it that much more when it happens.
Scorsese intercuts the concert footage with snippets of the band’s reminiscences. Apparently The Band played to an audience of three, including a one-armed stripper, at Jack Ruby’s club, the same Ruby who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the same Oswald who shot JFK. They went through their various band names. They tell stories about the first time they hit New York City and it hit back, making them believe that because they were staying at a hotel called The Times Square that they were actually in midtown.
The Band themselves move easily through varied styles. They were always a great backing unit. The Band explores the blues’ roots with Muddy Waters and the blues then-present with Eric Clapton. They let Dr. John’s bayou tinkling ivory drive them. They “Helplessly” harmonize with the sad harmonica and acoustic guitar of Neil Young like muted Crosby, Stills and Nashes.The Band silently played the rests while Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites “The Loud Prayer.” They switch up instruments to change the sonic landscape completely for a fiddled-up Emmy Lou Harris. They get in Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and follow Neil Diamond down Tin Pan Alley. Neil Diamond, he’s looked the same for 100 years. They hit Joni Mitchell and let her run in a growing shuffle of white lines on the freeway.
Scorsese understands the world of the music industry beyond rock and roll. He made New York New York, with Robert DeNiro blowing sax and sex with Liza Minelli, with a constant eye on who’s smoking what in which bathroom. I read that Scorsese had to edit coke residue from Neil Young’s nose through rotoscoping, animating the sequence frame by frame. I looked out for it on this viewing and I think I saw a little bluish cartoon mustache pop up on old Neil, long may he run.
Scorsese and Robbie Robertson blew through a coke-fueled year living together and collaborating. Ultimately Robertson would lend his ear to Scorsese’s Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and Shutter Island.
The rest of The Band probably should have stayed on the road. Sure, as Robbie says, the road claimed some of the best: Buddy Holly, Jimi, Janis and Elvis, but The Band was fine on the road. They lost three members after The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz is considered the best concert movie. It was shot on better cameras and had Martin Scorsese’s name on it, but does it really match the performances at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh? Scorsese turned the stage into a landscape, but it really is the fingers and throats that make a performance. The Last Waltz captures the community of rock shows: a quick puff of smoke or a line before taking the stage, talking with the other musicians during solos, sharing microphones and the easy familiarity that comes just from being in tune. A G is always a G, unless you’re Garth Hudson playing the sax, where a G is a Bb.
A version of this article originally ran on Thanksgiving Day 2014. We watch the movie every year, we may as well run the article every year.