The Band — mostly a Canadian outfit that changed the way Americans thought about their musical heritage in the '60s and '70s — spent almost a decade of its existence supporting other artists, from Ronnie Hawkins to Bob Dylan. So it's fitting that when, after achieving greatness in its own right, the Band decided to call it quits, doing so in a mammoth concert that focused as much on the group's peers as on itself. From Neil Young to Dr. John to Neil Diamond (!?!), some of the decade's giants showed up to bid farewell, with the world's best house band supporting them. In a slightly belated nod to the event's 25th anniversary, both the film — a notable work titled The Last Waltz — and the soundtrack of that concert have just been reissued.
The film, directed by Robbie Robertson's (of the Band) roommate-to-be Martin Scorsese, looks fantastic. Legendary promoter Bill Graham went nuts on the show, importing chandeliers and lavish opera sets for the stage, lending the swan song a bittersweet grandeur. Scorsese's team captures the night's best moments: Muddy Waters' pent-up fire on "Mannish Boy"; an uncharacteristically exuberant Van Morrison on "Caravan"; the Band itself, who come across brilliantly both as an ensemble and as individual performers. The filmmaker goes further, shooting soundstage numbers that carry the concert's theme another step; "The Weight," with the Staples Singers joining in, is magical — and without a live audience to get in the way, Scorsese indulges in sweeping camera moves that would fit right into his fictional features.
The movie's original soundtrack was three LPs, and still contained only around half of the evening's music. This new four disc set contains practically everything — not only the Band's "solo" set, but all of the guest appearances: four Dylan tunes, three Joni Mitchell ones, and so on. There are certainly highlights among these, but the real thrill is hearing Band standards such as "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," performed with the fire that comes from knowing this will be the last time around. A fourth CD contains auxiliary material, like rehearsals and the tunes that were cut after the actual event, including Emmylou Harris' beautiful "Evangeline."
"Roots" music seems doomed, in each wave of popularity, to be co-opted by hucksters and soulless copycats, or to be tagged with labels so confining that its most talented artists flee the genre. But documents like The Last Waltz remind you what is precious and exciting, every time the trend resurfaces, about digging around in the past for the future's groove.
The Last Waltz
The Band and Friends
(DVD, MGM Home Entertainment)
(4 CD boxed set, Warner Bros./Rhino Entertainment)