"The Last Waltz" at 35: Still the Best Concert Film Ever

by Jon Friedman
May 6, 2013 1:25 PM
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This spring marks the 35th anniversary of the release of "The Last Waltz." 

The film of The Band's farewell performance remains the best concert movie of all time. No disrespect intended to The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and the other groups that put out terrific documents of their stage work over the years. But this show from Winterland in San Francisco is the king of the hill.

Thirty-five! How much time has passed. Remember that Robbie Robertson, The Band's leader and guitarist, was not yet even 35 years old on the night of the big gig, Thanksgiving of 1976!

"The Last Waltz" holds up magnificently on many crucial levels. 

First, the music still sounds vibrant. The five accomplished musicians in The Band gave the concert their all and held nothing back. They must have known that this was going to be their swan song -- none of David Bowie's comebacks would take place after this evening. 

They put their stamp on those songs that had defined their mastery and appeal: "Up on Cripple Creek" (the opening song in both the actual show and the movie), "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Stage Fright," "The Shape I'm In" and "It Makes No Difference" (my favorite performance of all in the movie). The performance of "Ophelia" remains a marvel.

And the beautiful in-studio rendition of "The Weight," featuring The Staples Singers!

I continue to marvel at Robertson's guitar work -- why he isn't ALWAYS ranked at or near the top of those "Greatest Guitarist" polls is beyond me. Plus, you had the terrific singing of Levon Helm (while never missing a beat on the drums), Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Meanwhile, Garth Hudson holds the sound together on his keyboards.

The film makers' strategy also proved  to have a timeless quality. The interviewers with the group's members, conducted by Martin Scorsese, the film's brilliant director, continue to make me laugh and think. These never get stale. 

What's most amazing is that the performances sound so remarkable, considering that The Band had one crack at the on-stage collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison (who stole the movie with his high-stepping as he sang "Caravan"), Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

The group got it right on the first take, every time.

It's poignant to remember, too, that Helm, Danko and Manuel are gone. The voices that gave The Band much of its unique sound have been silenced. At least we can honor them today in this movie.

I was fortunate enough to see The Band six times in concert during the 1970s. Every performance stands out as a personal highlight in my love of great rock and roll music. It's entirely possible that The Band saved its best show for last. That would be fitting.

MEDIA MATRIX QUESTION: What is your favorite concert movie?

Please post your comments here.


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  • LJ | May 9, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    I like this movie, but I can't agree with the idea that it's the greatest concert film ever, it's just too uneven. It's definitely the best LOOKING one of them, the cinematography is gorgeous, but the phony interviews with Robbie, the misleading portrayal of the Band's creative dynamic (first time I saw this film, I thought it was just Robbie's band, but that was before I listened to any of their records), the uneven performances, and some of the pomposity of the whole affair is worth noting. A lot to like, but there's still problems.

    But this isn't a genre that has a lot of great competition, so it's definitely among the best. I'd put Stop Making Sense and Monterey Pop at the top.

  • Sean | May 7, 2013 9:28 PMReply

    What makes the movie for me is the limited use of edits by Marty. I can focus on the faces of the guys on stage. Small glances or body language to indicate what's coming next. When they all are looking at Bob Dylan to see what song he was going to play next is a treasure to see. The smile of Dr John's face is worth a billion dollars. Nowadays every concert film (except Neil's last one) are full of useless edits, zooms, crowd shots etc. As much as I love Paul McCartney I can't sit through his concert videos. Time it. There is an edit almost every 5 seconds. I want to experience the show as if I was sitting up front in the audience. I only wish Marty used this technique in Shine a Light.

  • Thomas L | May 7, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    I'm inclined to think that The Band just delivered what they always did. Another great show albeit bigger due to cameras and celebrity guests. Interestingly enough from what I've read, according to the other Band members, they didn't know that Robertson saw The Last Waltz as The Last Gig. If you watch carefully, all that talk was between Robertson and Scorcese in studio and did not include any other members. When the other members were in the mix, there was talk of the road and it's hardships and therefore they knew of the plans to quit touring (so much) but supposedly it came as some surprise that The Band, at least with Robbie Robertson, was done.

  • Eric Wishart | May 7, 2013 11:10 AMReply

    Loved it at the time but looking back it was the Robbie ego fest that destroyed The Band.
    Better than Woodstock? Not sure these comparisons really stick, or matter. But Van never sounded better, and Bob never looked sillier in that terrible hat.

  • LJ | May 9, 2013 12:13 PM

    I agree, this was Van's greatest moment on any filmed medium, even with that outfit. He totally stole the show, and it was actually a shock for me to see his scene because I had never seen him before on TV or anywhere else. All I had before I knew about this film was "The Best of Van Morrison" CD, and there's not a single photo of him in the liner notes.

  • Bill Delaney | May 7, 2013 3:09 AMReply

    The group did not "get it right the first on the first take, every time." Except for Levon Helm's parts, much of The Band's music was "fixed" or re-recorded in post-production. Levon, of course, got it right the first time.

  • Robert Taylor | May 7, 2013 11:27 AM

    Don't trust Levon Helm's biography on that one, there are bootlegs of the entire concert out there (without overdubs) on sites like Wolfgang's Vault. What becomes clear is that for the most part the over-dubs are actually very minimal and most of the songs are exactly as you see them in the film (not saying there weren't over-dubs, almost every live album has them, just that for the most part we actually are hearing how they played live.)

  • Jakefish | May 6, 2013 5:45 PMReply

    "The group got it right on the first take, every time."

    Actually (according to Levon's autobiography) there were plenty of overdubs done later in the studio to clean up the songs. Rick's bass was slightly out of tune and there were flubbed notes from everyone here and there. Do a little more research next time, Jon.

  • Me my self and I | May 6, 2013 4:50 PMReply

    oh boys - your comments suck - you don't know what this is all about - i'd rather listen to ABBA than your comments. buy the frickin dvd and you will find out ...

  • Reynaud de la Bat Smit | May 6, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    Despite Levon's revelations of the unhappiness behind the scenes, I agree that it was one of the finest films of a rock concert, ever. I have watched it hundreds of times, listened to it countless times, and I still love every minute of it. I once discussed it with Ringo, who said that it was one of his favourite gigs ever, and that he too continued to watch the DVD and listen to the soundtrack.

  • Brad | May 6, 2013 4:20 PMReply

    Yeah, I remember reading that Levon Helm was opposed to breaking up and shooting the Fil altogether. I may be wrong. Either way, such a great film!

  • Rob | May 6, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    so how is the Last Waltz the best concert film ever? It's not" Stop Making Sense is it?
    Heck it wasnt even the bands best live album.
    Now don't get me wrong I love the band but best concert film ever?

  • Andy | May 6, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    According to Helm (the member I consider to be The Band's Leader), The Last Waltz was a second tier performance. He remarked that the show was full of technical mishaps, lousy sound and a few guest performers, ahem! Neil Diamond, ahem!, that didn't belong. Not to mention, Scorsese gave Robertson's interviews and performances top billing. It wasn't a happy night for anyone in the band, except for Robbie.

  • Dick | May 6, 2013 5:43 PM

    Thanks Andy at least someone is informed before expressing opinions. Robbie sang into a dead mic (check it out). A great book "This Wheel's on Fire" explains a lot. The music is still alive with Levon's spirit along with a lot of talented musicians at The Midnight Ramble, Levon Helm Studios, Woodstock NY.

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