If there were ever a group of musicians for whom the term “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” fit like a glove, it was The Band. Perhaps even more so than The Beatles, this quintet of multi-vocalist/multi-instrumentalists shifted roles in such chameleon-like and, more important, egoless fashion as to be utterly interdependent and simultaneously supportive.
Which is why I’ve always had problems with The Last Waltz, the film (and album) of the group’s star-studded farewell concert on Thanksgiving 1976. Because in the hands of guitarist-turned-movie producer Robbie Robertson and director Martin Scorsese, bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and organist/saxophonist Garth Hudson were no longer equal members of one of the great rock groups of the ’60s and ’70s; they were sidemen to Robertson, the spokesman for the group, the face of The Band, the star of the show. What Let It Be was to Paul McCartney, The Last Waltz was to Robbie Robertson. But whereas McCartney was trying to keep The Beatles together, Robertson was closing the book on The Band (over the wishes of some of its members). The film – in which Robbie’s 20 percent of the pie expands to at least 80 percent of concert footage and interview segments – begins to suspiciously resemble a coming-out party for one-fifth of The Band: Robbie Robertson. And, indeed, he went on to produce and act in the movie Carny and supply music for several Scorsese movies.
When the film was released in 1978, Newsweek lauded it as “the finest of all rock movies!” – which is simply not true. However, The New Yorker‘s observation that it was “the most beautiful rock film ever made” is hard to rebut – thanks to cinematographers Michael Chapman, Laszlo Kovacs and others, production designer Boris Leven, and the fact that it was shot on 35mm. In typically overblown fashion, Rolling Stone declared it “one of the most important cultural events of the last two decades.” (Hmm… there was the Vietnam War, the birth control pill, the Kennedy assassinations, the March On Washington, the Watts and Detroit riots, the moon landing, women’s lib, Medicare, the gay rights movement, the first heart transplant, Watergate. And in rock and roll, in the 20 years preceding The Band’s dissolution, Elvis scored his first #1 hit, the Beatles took over the airwaves, and there was Woodstock. Just to add a little perspective.)
Twenty-five years after the event, a digitally remastered DVD of the two-hour movie is available (with the usual obligatory special features), as well as a four-CD boxed set that clocks in at four hours (24 of its 54 tracks unreleased on the original triple-LP configuration). The movie is really a concert film pretending to be a documentary – with interview segments (added after the fact) inserted between the live material, much of which was later overdubbed, according to Band producer John Simon. None of the planning and preparation (lining up guests like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Muddy Waters on short notice, spiffing up San Francisco’s rundown Winterland) or rehearsals are shown, and there is no historical Band footage. Also, the show is edited out of sequence; Greil Marcus’ Rolling Stone review of the concert reveals that The Band played their entire solo set before bringing out any guests.
To Scorsese’s credit, though, each song that’s included is shown in its entirety (with the exception of Hudson’s showpiece “Genetic Method/Chest Fever”), and there are no gratuitous audience shots. Also, the cameras are placed in such a way as to be invisible; you don’t see cable pullers crawling around the stage. But the director’s presence is obtrusive in another way – as a fish-out-of-water interviewer, coming off as extremely unhip, not to mention unnecessary. As he admits in the DVD’s commentary feature, “I don’t really know how to talk to musicians and composers.” A perfect “right tool for the right job” opportunity (so hire somebody who does, Marty) missed.
Some cameos (The Band’s former leader, Ronnie Hawkins, on “Who Do You Love;” Dr. John’s “Such A Night;” Dylan’s mini set) are fitting, while others have little relationship with the group’s music (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Diamond, looking like the world’s worst undercover cop – and not sounding much better). The most electrifying moment is harpist Paul Butterfield dueting with Helm (who is pounding twin drums with Manuel) on “Mystery Train” – under a lone spotlight, because of a temporarily blown fuse.
Clapton’s blues shuffle, “Further On Up the Road,” illustrates both his strengths and Robertson’s weaknesses. It’s far from E.C.’s most dazzling fretwork, but he plays in a relaxed, soulful groove – giving each phrase its appropriate weight and muscle. Robbie, on the other hand, seems aimless – busily getting ahead of the beat and never really saying anything. And up to that night, Robertson would have seemed the ultimate Guitar Anti-Hero in an age of Guitar Heroes, a model of taste in a sea of excess. Sadly, for The Band’s swan song, he flushed all that down the commode and wanked to his heart’s content, as if to prove that he, too, could run with the big dogs. In fact, what he proved was that a little of his side-of-the-pick, false-harmonic, trademark squeal went a long way; a little more, and it got annoying in a hurry.
And, again, the film is shot in such a way as to make Robertson look like a god, not to mention the most versatile musician on the planet – neglecting the fact that four other musicians are laying down the grooves, providing the vocals, running the stylistic gamut from A to Z with as much or more authority. “But,” folks will say, “it was Robbie who wrote those songs. He was the true genius of The Band.” Well, that’s debatable, according to Levon, who disputes Robertson getting sole songwriting credit on so much of the material – read Helm’s autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire. And Levon says Garth was the group’s “soul and presiding genius,” while Clapton says Richard Manuel was “the true light of The Band.”
Which is not to minimize Robertson’s role. He was one-fifth of one of the greatest rock bands in history. The Last Waltz DVD is worth renting, but if you want to know what that quintet was all about, buy Music From Big Pink and The Band and skip this boxed set.
So what was the finest of all rock movies? A Hard Day’s Night. The best rock documentary? Woodstock. And the greatest blurring of the line between the two? This Is Spinal Tap.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.