The Last Waltz Reissued in Deluxe 40th Anniversary Package
The concert documentary The Last Waltz begins with a song from the end of the performance, an encore of “Don’t Do It.” Clearly, director Martin Scorsese wasn’t just trying to be clever. As he conceived it, The Last Waltz was a celebration of an ending; the 1976 concert was the triumphant finale for the band known simply as The Band. Unfortunately, some Band members eventually had other ideas and milked nostalgia from the name during the ‘80s before the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko made it impossible to continue.
The Last Waltz set high standards for rock documentaries of all sorts, concert films or otherwise upon release in 1978. The stellar lineup of musical guest stars was the grounding for its success, but The Last Waltz benefitted from Scorsese’s skill as an editor. The new 40th Anniversary Edition includes the film on Blu-ray and the entire concert on four CDs and is packaged as a hardcover book with photographs from the big event and insightful essays by Rolling Stones’ David Fricke and others. The five-hours on audio juxtaposed with the two-hour movie illustrates Scorsese’s craft. He didn’t just position his cameras and wait for the musicians to show up. He chose judiciously, sequenced the performances imaginatively, staged a couple of numbers in a studio off-site (including Emmylou Harris on “Evangeline”) and interspersed the music with interviews with The Band that put The Last Waltz on context.
The segues are often significant. Scorsese goes from The Band’s impromptu “Old Time Religion” during an interview to The Staple Singers, who added a hint of gospel to “The Weight”; from Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading a scrap of doggerel to the man who brought modernist poetry to the masses, Bob Dylan; from the tremendous gravitational pull of Muddy Waters to the merely gifted Eric Clapton; from The Band recalling the last days of Tin Pan Alley in an interview to a melodramatic performance by Neil Diamond.
The Band was in good form for the concert. The rhythm section was loose, limber and funky; Garth Hudson added a touch of wild carnival with his organ; and Robbie Robertson’s incisive (and insightful) guitar solos pushed the songs to new levels. The Band’s music linked rock and roll to the 19th century of traveling shows, ragtime and saloon piano players.
“This living on the road is getting pretty old,” Robertson explained to Scorsese. He felt The Band had already done all it could do and wanted to end it on a high note. He was right.