|The Band on the cover of their 2nd album|
"People ask me about The Last Waltz all the time. Rick Danko dying at fifty-six is what I think of The Last Waltz. It was the biggest fuckin' rip-off that ever happened to The Band -- without a doubt." -- Levon Helm, one of the five original members of The Band in "This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band" by Helm with Stephen Davis.
According to Levon Helm's account, fellow Band member Robbie Robertson wanted to stop touring, go Hollywood and essentially break up the group whether the other fellows wanted to or not. [Helm admits that he was heroin-addled much of the time, which may have colored his account or explain why Robertson was able to "get away" with what he did.] In any case, Robertson brought filmmaker Martin Scorsese in to film a big Farewell [to touring] concert with many special guest stars. When some numbers didn't turn out quite the way the two wanted, it was decided to re-film them on a special set after the fact, and the soundtrack was apparently fiddled with afterward a great bit as well.
Strictly as a concert film, The Last Waltz is not bad at all, especially if you like the music of The Band and such guest-stars as Doctor John [Such a Night], Bob Dylan [Forever Young], Neil Young [Helpless], Neil Diamond [Dry Your Eyes], Joni Mitchell [Coyote], Van Morrison [Caravan], Emmylou Harris [Evangeline], Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and others. But if you're expecting to get to know the individual members of the Band to any degree, forget it, as Scorsese, who conducted very minor interviews with the boys, is a pretty lousy interviewer [even given the fact that some of the members did not especially wish to cooperate]. As a documentary, this is superficial beyond belief.
As for the Band ... well, it would be all too easy to dismiss them as a kind of corn pone, even phoney "hillbilly" [or "rockabilly"] band -- only one of the four members, Helm, was Southern; the rest were Canadians! -- were it not for the fact that some of their songs are pure rock poetry. I mean, nobody [especially up north] can relate to its civil war setting and rebel viewpoint, yet "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" has an irresistible melody, some splendid harmonizing, and certainly illustrates the group's fine musicianship. [I've always loved the song, "Unfaithful Servant" -- for the same reasons -- but who the hell knows what the damn thing is about?]
The Last Waltz is a good-looking picture with some great music and performances. But it's only a small part of the story of The Band.
Verdict: Just sit back and listen. ***.