The Band, one of the greatest groups in the history of rock and roll, had been on the road together for 16 years when they decided to part ways in 1976. But they felt like they should have one last hurrah, and put together a concert at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, the location of their first gig as a band. They invited a lot of their friends to help send them off in style, and held the event on Thanksgiving Day. I say "they", but it was really only lead songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson that wanted to disband. He couldn't imagine continuing in their current touring lifestyles, and wanted to do something different. Drummer/singer Levon Helm was staunchly against the breakup, thinking that the group was still going strong and could continue to be relevant in the music world. Levon makes his very valid case by giving the performance of his life during The Band's final show, one they dubbed The Last Waltz.
Now, you and I don't have the same kind of friends that The Band had, to put it mildly. The "friends" that they invited out to send them off in style included people like Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Bob Dylan (whom The Band had been the backing group for when he went electric), Joni Mitchell, The Staples Singers, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, and others. They also had a movie director friend from New York named Martin Scorsese who wanted to film The Last Waltz and make a rock documentary about it. A decade or so previously, Scorsese had worked on the team of editors editing the great Rock Doc of the time, 1970's Woodstock, the documentary of the legendary 1969 festival. Years later many people hold Scorsese's The Last Waltz (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year) as high or higher than that epic doc.
As great as all those guest stars are, the best parts of The Last Waltz are with The Band alone. Scorsese conducts interviews with all the band members, pianist/singer Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, and bassist/singer Rick Danko, but Robbie and Levon are the dominant personalities. They talk about how they got together and tell some stories of their early days, and we also see their still powerful performances during the concert segments. The movie opens up on their final encore, their definitive take on Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It", and later they go through their hits "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" without guests, while The Staples Singers accompany the group during their other big hit "The Weight". As I said before, Levon is in rare form as both a drummer and a singer throughout the night, Robbie nicely MC's the event and plays better than ever, and many of the guests are performing at their highest capacities (especially Van Morrison and Neil Young). But I'm saddened that Richard Manuel, who had the most heartbreaking and beautiful voice in all of rock music, was so broken down through his addictions and hard life on the road that we only really see him sing a verse of the Dylan/Band classic "I Shall Be Released". This has always been Levon Helm's problem with The Last Waltz, both he and Rick Danko considered Manuel to be the lead singer, and yet he is nearly absent from the final cut of the concert we see. Robbie Robertson says that Manuel was too far gone in his addictions, and he and Scorsese did the best they could with the material they had.
There's a sadness alongside the joyousness of the music here. A type of sadness not usually seen in concert films. You can see that the guys love playing music together, and with their friends, but there's a sort of knowing wistfulness in everyones eyes, particularly Robbie's. The Last Waltz was a wonderful celebration of one of the great bands of all time, but also a melancholic goodbye to the music that they made together. The Last Waltz is the greatest of rock docs, about one of the greatest of bands, and even now in its 30th year, there are still amazing sights and sounds to behold.