Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Mardik Martin (treatment)
Starring: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell
Country: USA
Running Time: 117 min
Year: 1978
BBFC Certificate: PG

The film The Last Waltz began life as an idea by The Band to film their final concert for posterity, using one video camera. That slowly grew to a few video cameras, then to a few 16mm film cameras. At that stage, they figured why not hire someone who knew what they were doing to direct it. So they approached Martin Scorsese, who was in post-production for New York, New York, his biggest project at the time. The Band thought he had a knack for using music on film and he’d previously worked as an editor on the epic concert film, Woodstock. Scorsese was incredibly busy, but thought the project would be fun and was likely over-energised by his cocaine habit at the time (confirmed by himself in later years). He had more ambitious plans than simply shooting the concert from a few angles in 16mm and cobbling it together afterwards though. His involvement and the subsequent elaboration of the show itself led The Last Waltz film to become widely regarded as one of the best concert films ever made.

One of Scorsese’s changes was to shoot in 35mm, which had never previously been done for a concert film. He pulled in favours and called on friends to operate the cameras, meaning rather than a few operators-for-hire he ended up with a crew that included Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter) and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), and was led by Michael Chapman (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). Scorsese also hired his New York, New York production designer Boris Leven, who had previously worked on West Side Story and The Sound of Music, to design the stage and lighting. Sets from the San Francisco Opera were borrowed and chandeliers put above the stage (Leven wanted them all over the hall, but that proved too expensive). Scorsese meticulously planned and storyboarded the lighting cues and camera movement for each song too, a far cry from the usual rough and ready approach of most concert films of the time.

The unpredictable nature of the live concert meant everything didn’t go quite to plan (a couple of performances weren’t covered in the end due to technical problems) but the results are still astounding. Quite a few big name concert films these days are slickly put together, but The Last Waltz still looks great, particularly in this gorgeous new HD presentation. With crisp 35mm photography and that lovely natural film grain you get from the format, as well as plenty of graceful camera movement, there’s a level of class and craftsmanship often lacking from similar music documentaries.

Scorsese also talked The Band into shooting a few songs separately, away from the concert, so that they could get a more polished presentation. These tracks, which include the classic ‘The Weight’, look fantastic as the crew had time to do multiple takes and, because they were never impeding on the view of the audience as they might have done during the concert, they could employ much more elaborate dolly and crane shots.

All of this slick presentation would be nothing if it were covering lacklustre musical material, but luckily the concert itself is pure gold. The Band themselves are fantastic, displaying the effortless skill and showmanship of the whole group (even if the film draws a lot of focus on Robbie Robertson), as well as highlighting the quality of their songwriting. What makes the concert extra special though is, as the ambitions of the film grew, as did the scale of the show itself. The Band and their manager roped in friends and associates to assemble a supporting lineup that puts most festivals to shame. The list is mind-blowing, with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond and Dr. John among others. In the glorious finale to the film when everyone gets on stage for ‘I Shall be Released’, you can even spot Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood joining in. Most of the artists only show up for one song, but this means we get a wonderful mix of classic hits from many of the best singers of the era. There’s not a weak link among them.

What the set also achieves beautifully is to give a broad cross-section of American popular music in one show. You’ve got blues represented, country, gospel, folk, Tin Pan Alley and of course rock. This isn’t just an attempt to appeal to a wider audience either. The range of styles represent those that come together to form The Band’s distinctly American sound (even though they’re Canadian!)

Also adding flavour and context to the film are interviews with the band members intercut between the songs. These are fairly short and snappy, gradually telling the story of the band as well as throwing in plenty of amusing stories about their life on the road.

The Last Waltz truly deserves its reputation as one of the best music documentaries/concert films ever made. I’ve seen it numerous times and never grow tired of it. It helps of course that I’m a massive fan of many of the artists who appear in the film, but it’s hard to ignore the ambitious artistry that Scorsese added to the production and with The Band giving it their all for their final show, it’s hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere.

The Last Waltz is out now on dual format Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks and sounds fantastic, with a wonderfully detailed and crisp picture and audio that does the great music justice.

You get a decent selection of special features too:

– Limited Edition Hardbound Case (3000 copies)
– 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
– PCM 5.1 Audio
– Optional English SDH subtitles
– Audio Commentary by director Martin Scorsese and Musician Robbie Robertson
– Audio Commentary by “The Band” members Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, journalists Jay Cocks and Greil Marcus, creative consultant Mardik Martin, producers Jonathan Taplin and Steven Prince, Cameraman Michael Chapman, Music Producer John Simon, Irwin Winkler and performers Mavis Staples, Dr. John and Ronnie Hawkins (includes optional subtitles identifying who is talking)
– Revisiting The Last Waltz [22 mins]
– Archival Outtakes
– Stills gallery
PLUS: A 100-PAGE perfect bound collector s book including writing on the film by Adam Batty, Greil Marcus and Robbie Robertson; an abundance of extremely rare archival imagery; extensive notes, storyboards and sketches from the film’s production [Limited Edition Exclusive]

All of the extra features appeared on the previous DVD release, which is a little disappointing, but it’s still a fine selection of material so it’s hard to complain. The big group commentary was the standout for me. It’s taken from snippets of interviews/commentaries rather than a live recording with all involved, but still works very well and the variety of contributors means it never grows stale and is packed with fun anecdotes about the production. The Robertson and Scorsese commentary is decent too, although again they’re not in the room together, so you miss out on any interplay between the pair. The ‘Revisiting’ featurette is worth a watch too.

For owners of the previous DVD release, the star of the package will certainly be the 100-page book. I wasn’t sent a PDF to look at, unfortunately, but if previous Masters of Cinema booklets are anything to go by, it’ll be more valuable than most ‘making of’ documentaries.

* PLEASE NOTE – Stills are not taken from the Blu-Ray, so are not indicative of the picture quality.

The Last Waltz
5.0Overall Score
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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