Take a Load Off
Pauline Kael, writing for the New Yorker in 1977, on The Last Waltz:
No American movie this year has been as full of the “joy of making cinema” as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, his film of The Band’s Thanksgiving, 1976, concert in San Francisco. He shot it while he was still involved in New York, New York- which was full of the “agony of making cinema.” In The Last Waltz, Scorsese seems in complete control of his talent and of the material, and you can feel everything going just right, just was in New York, New York, you could feel everything going wrong. It’s an even-tempered, intensely satisfying movie. Visually, it’s dark-toned and rich and classically simple. The sound (if one has the good luck to catch it in a theatre equipped with a Dolby system) is so clear that the instruments have the distinctness that one hears on the most craftsmanlike recordings, and the casual interviews have a musical, rhythmic ease.
Martin Scorsese possesses gifts- of movement and timing and color and texture. His is a redoubtable body of work. He also knows when not to intrude, to let his scenes take deep breaths and languorously exhale before moving on.
The casual interviews Kael refers to (where each member of The Band comes across as supremely cool- relaxed and wise with anecdotes from their nearly 20 years on the road together) act as perfect interludes to the concert footage and the many guests who joined them on stage for their farewell concert. A lumpy, avuncular looking Van Morrison does a rousing version of Caravan, high kicking across the stage and repeatedly calling out to the horns “Give it to me one more time!” as walls of brass cascade at his command. It’s pretty awesome, spine-tingling stuff and as Morrison histrionically drops his mic and exits the stage Robertson bows into his own and, with a trace of necessary awe, justly utters, “Van the Man!” Just as good is experiencing Joni Mitchell’s rendition of her beautiful song, Coyote, and the joy that comes with watching her effortlessly weave those splendidly strange lyrics all around her vocal idiosyncrasies. Or how about the studio version (three songs were filmed over the course of 5 nights on a sound stages- wonderfully designed, as were the live sets, by Boris Levan) of The Weight, with Mavis and Pops Staples taking turns on verses? As the song ends, the camera lingers on Mavis who we hear just barely whispering, “Beautiful.”
There’s another moment, maybe my favorite in the film, when Scorsese, sitting with Rick Danko in his studio, asks him what he’s going to do now that The Band were calling it quits. “Make music,” Danko says matter of factly, nervously fiddling with his hat and leaning into his mixing board as he slowly raises the levels of the song he’s currently working on. Scorsese, one of the most musical of American directors and one who has never shied away from expressing his own enthusiasm for rock and roll (the use of Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets in Bringing Out the Dead, for example, is awesome), is genuinely moved and simply sighs an empathetic, “Yeah…oh, yeah,” as the camera moves in to linger, just a few seconds, on Danko. This moment is made even more poignant when one considers that Danko died in his sleep up in Woodstock, New York in the late 90’s.
Did I mention how incredible it all sounds?