At its best, The Band makes good the grandiose claim that it plays The Music: a hypnotic, joyous sound, music that, as critic Greil Marcus says, "gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed, that it had possibilities we were only beginning to perceive." And when "The Last Waltz," a film record of The Band's final concert, is at its best, and not without a struggle.
When word got out that The Band's Thanksgiving 1976 finale at San Francisco's Winterland would be filmed, the excitement generated was only partly due to the group's preeminent rock status. Most of it came from the realization that for the first time in rock film history a superb group of cinema technicians would be in control.
"The Last Waltz" was to be the first rock film shot in 35mm and the first to use a 24-track recording system. It was to be directed by Martin Scorsese, best known ofr "Taxi Driver" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," but in a previous incarnation an editor of both "Wood stock and "Elvis on Tour." And best of all, among the film's six directors of photography were Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmo Zsigmond, definitely two of Hollywood's classiest visual acts.
The good news about "The Last Waltz is that on the technical level it more than fulfills all the fond hopes all that fancy talent promises. What a pleasure it is to have crisp, non-grainy closeups and elegant, intelligent, non-gimmicky camerawork in a genre usually characterized by blurry out-of-focus and just plain inept work. The images are so vivid, in fact, that the audience is at first too shell-shocked to do very much cheering.
Neither is The Band your usual stoned-out, shuffling and mumbling rock aggregation, though keyboard man Richard Manuel shows definite tendencies in that direction. Band spokesman and lead guitar Robbie Robertson is articulate, confident and intelligent almost to the point of arrogance, a Thinking Man's Rock Star, and the group of guest performers that join The Band on stage are for the most part equally impressive.
One after another on the Winterland's neo-Louis Quatorze stage come the great and near-great of rock 'n' roll: a blimp-liked and mellow Ronnie Hawkins, who gave The Band its start; a bedraggled Neil Young; a pudgy Van Morrison; a cool, almost urbane Eric Clapton trading startling guitar runs with Robertson; an out-of-place Neil Diamond; Joni Mitchell; Dr. John and Maddy Watens. And finally, a rather prissy Bob Dylan, who is one of the film's few uncontrolled moments reduces The Band's members to tense, nervous schoolbous. The superb camerawork shows those dynamics clearly, and it is really something to see.
That moment is such a revelation precisely because the restr of "The Last Waltz" is under such tight wraps. The Band, both in their music and in the intercut interviews conducted by a sadly inept Scorsese, show us exactly what they want to, nothing more. Planning their last show with the presision of a Beverly Hills bar mitzvah, The Band has in orchestrated their last rites until it does seem more like a funeral than a celebration, like Mark Twain getting a kick out of reading his own obituary a few days before he dies.
When "The Last Waltz" lags> as it does in places, it is because it has no sanitized the manic energy of rock 'n' roll that the music itself, the very reason for the film's existence, is nearly embalmed in the process. Nothing is really wrong, but spontaneous appeal, a sense of tearing loose, is occasionally missing.
Fortunately, the key word is occasionally, because The Band's music has such intrinsic strength and resilience that it can't help but break through those self-imposed barriers and set itself and the audience free. One the best of The Band's numbers -- "Stage Fright," "Ophelia," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and a marvelous impromptu off-stage rendering of "That Old Time Religion" -- the combination of film and music succeeds the way you always knew it could. The good-time immediacy and urgency of it cries out to be hungely enjoyed, and it is.