By Sarah Kennelly
The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, chronicles the final performance of The Band, a group originally formed as a backup ensemble in 1963 for rockabilly musician Ronnie “the Hawk” Hawkins. During their nearly two decades together, The Band navigated a drastically changing American music scene, all the while maintaining their “roots rock” sound. Shown in media res, the film begins with their encore on Thanksgiving night, 1976. The performance was staged at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where they had first appeared as “The Band” in 1969.
As the first title card of the documentary, “This film should be played loud,” would suggest, it is essentially a concert film, interspersed with interviews of the members conducted by Scorsese. In the film’s first interview, singer Robbie Robertson states “We wanted it to be more than just a concert, we wanted it to be a celebration. Beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning.” It is primarily a retrospective of their career and the rock and roll era, tracing their origins from their start in the late 1950s backing blues and folk singers like Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, through their rise as a solo act.
Scorsese not only documents their personal story, but showcases those who have influenced their music: Muddy Waters, the Staple Singers, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, and Van Morrison. However, it is not just a concert film. Besides its unique nonlinear structure, the film stands out because there is actual waltzing. The title “The Last Waltz” not only refers to their last performance together as a group, but the celebration that occurred before the show, with tables for a Thanksgiving feast covering the dance floor, then cleared for the waltzers.
In the opening credits, the camera pans around San Francisco, pre-gentrification (or pre-Silicon Valley). The dilapidated city shown is very different from the city as it is today.
The venue was chosen for its location; the connection between music and the Haight, a neighborhood that had suffered “white flight” in the early 70s, which had become a haven poor musicians. The venue itself had actually been a Depression-era ballroom and skating rink, with a large wooden dance floor, stage, and balcony for observers.
The performance itself is incredibly structured to show the band’s musical evolution; each guest represents a different stage in their career and a different musical influence. For example, the first guest, Ronnie Hawkins, represents the very beginning of the group. Hawkins, a contemporary of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, discovered that Canadians loved the rockabilly genre and possessed a rich music scene in Toronto but was largely ignored by artists on tour. As he toured, Hawkins assembled local musicians to back him, who would eventually become The Band.
Another guest, Dr. John, a jazz singer-songwriter, represents the influence of New Orleans and southern jazz on their fourth studio album Cahoots, produced by jazz musician and NOLA native Allen Toussaint. This album has a noticeably different sound than their first album as group Music from Big Pink, which was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan’s sound, and who cowrote two songs on the album, with other songs emerging on The Basement Tapes. While their previous albums could be described as country, folk, or Americana, Cahoots has undertones of southern rhythm blues. It was also a large departure from their previous album, Stage Fright, recorded four years earlier in 1970.
Keeping with the nonlinear theme, The Band then goes back to their roots- their respective youths in Canada, where each member (except Arkansan Levon Helm) experienced the burgeoning, vibrant music scene. Neil Young, their contemporary and fellow Ontarian, then performs “Helpless” with the group, which begins “in a town in Old Ontario.” Another Canadian, Joni Mitchell, provides backing vocals. The next song, “Stage Fright” refers to their performance as a solo act, when Robbie Robertson was overcome with stage fright, and told Scorsese he feared he would vomit on stage. This prompts a series of interviews regarding their rise in the mid-sixties, which coincided with the growing popularity of psychedelic rock. As Richard Manuel describes it, The Band, while working with Bob Dylan, was juxtaposed against highly produced psych rock, which saw mainstream artists The Beatles and The Rolling Stones releasing experimental albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Their Satanic Majesties Request respectively, and new bands like Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Robbie Robertson explains, “You know, for one thing, there aren’t many bands around Woodstock and our friends and neighbors just call us the band and that’s the way we think of ourselves. And then, we just don’t think a name means anything. It’s gotten out of hand — the name thing. We don’t want to get into a fixed bag like that.”
Their last show in 1976 followed a turbulent year for the group. Only months before, Richard Manuel was seriously injured in a car accident, and was battling a heroin addiction. The Band was also about to lose their lead singer and songwriter Robbie Robertson who would have preferred the group stop touring and become a studio band. The stress of touring for sixteen years was evident in the lyrics for “The Weight,” “I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead, I just need some place where I can lay my head.”
Today, the musical influence of the band can be seen in the recent 2000s “New Folk Revival” in popular Top 40 bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. Other folk/neo-folk rock groups include Old Crow Medicine Show, Jamestown Revival, The Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and The Decemberists, each with the same roots rock tendencies and appreciation for Southern blues.
I chose this particular film because of the importance of The Band in my family. As long as I can remember, my father has had a poster of the Music from Big Pink cover in his office, and has made the family watch The Last Waltz after Thanksgiving dinner. A few years before I was born, my father and his best friend had even driven around Woodstock for hours trying to find Big Pink. They eventually found an identical blue house, and in the days before the internet, reasoned that someone must have painted over the pink. They were actually just at the wrong house, but still showed the photo to Rick Danko at a bar, where he may or may not have been hitting on my mom. In an anecdote my father will happily regale you with today, Danko deadpanned “I kinda remember it being pink.”