Movie Project #4: The Last Waltz [1978]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Last Waltz [1978]

The Last Waltz [1978]
Director: Martin Scorcese
Genre: Documentary/Music
Starring: The Band + friends
Running Time: 117 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is widely considered one of the greatest rock films of all time, if not the greatest.

Accolades: KCFCC Award for Best Documentary, 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes


So says the opening screen of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorcese’s documentation of The Band’s final performance on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Set in the majestic Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco (also the site of the group’s very first concert), the film shows a good chunk of the actual concert, interspersed with brief interludes and interviews with band members.

The Last Waltz [1978]

Going into The Last Waltz, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Band is one of those groups that were wildly important in the 60s and 70s, but they somehow managed to ride the line of anonymity (not unlike their generic band name). Ask the average person about The Band and they may remember or recognize “The Weight“, but that’s probably the extent of their knowledge. I know that for many years, that was all I knew from them.

No matter. This is a film that can be appreciated by music lovers of all kinds, whether fans of The Band or not. Their music stands the test of the time, and they are joined in their final concert by a number of familiar friends and well-known musicians. Just take a look at their list of special guests: Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Star, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Charles, The Staple Singers.

Yeah. Holy shit.

The Last Waltz [1978]

With such a wide variety of guests, naturally the music weaves in and out of different genres. Whether it’s blues, folk or just plain rock and roll, there’s something for everyone. Best of all, everyone on stage seems to be having the time of their life. There’s a sense of melancholy, to be sure, but most of the musicians are playing with a smile on their face.

Now, this being a Scorcese picture, this isn’t a typical concert film. Scorcese went all out and turned this into a full-scale studio production with seven 35mm cameras, even employing some pretty great cinematographers to operate them. Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and László Kovács (Easy Rider) are just a few of those attached to the project. The final product turned out to be a visually stunning concert, with frequent transitions between closeups of the different musicians. Some have complained that Scorcese focused too heavily on band member Robbie Robertson, but there are some great shots of all involved.

The Last Waltz [1978]

At its most basic, The Last Waltz is an amazing snapshot of its time. Is there a better congregation of 70s rock figures than in this film? There are many fun moments and performances, but seeing everyone involved come back on stage to play together one more time may be the best of all. The DVD includes a bonus cut of an improvised jam session as well, which is just as fun.

If I were to have one complaint with the film, it would be that two of the song performances — “The Weight” with the Staple Singers and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris — were filmed on a sound stage, not at the actual concert. While these renditions are fantastic, it was odd to bounce between the two.

Regardless, this is a great film, and Scorcese is absolutely right that it must be played LOUD. This is a fun, breezy two hours, and by the end of it I felt like I had just witnessed one hell of a show.