The Last Waltz

Last night we watched The Last Waltz (again), and it was as good as I remember. Just imagine! Early Scorsese, cut like a Wes Anderson film, on-camera re-takes, unapologetic title typeface, everybody with ill-advised beards, everything drenched in a bloody sort of red – oh, friends, it is glory itself.

We realized, as we watched The Band perform “Up on Cripple Creek” that we hadn’t watched the documentary since Levon Helm died. We vowed to go to another Midnight Ramble, the next chance we could.

Let me tell you about how great this movie is. It’s really great. First, the music! Second, the music! Also, the sheer variety of musicians who came to say farewell to The Band – starting with Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins! Giggly, slightly drunk (probably coked up, too, truthfully), clearly enjoying the entire affair, he rousingly growls out “Who Do You Love” with a sense of satisfaction and joy.

Oh! Then, Dr. John cruises out and does nothing less than tickle the ivories, and it just makes you laugh to feel the music thrill through you on “Such a Night.” Just watch:

And! The pieces shot the week after the concert! Oh! Besides being amazing music (“The Weight”with The Staple Singers, and “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris), Scorsese takes the camera behind this stage that’s set up in the middle of a huge studio space, and through the fog and the lights, you see the silhouettes of the film crew. It’s an arresting shot.

Joni Mitchell plays, and sings some backup vocals, and is just totally Joni Mitchell all over the place. I think she’s the only woman in the show to perform lead vocals (she sings one of her own songs) (I say I think, because she is the only one in the film, but there may have been cuts I didn’t catch). Her folky haunting voice lingers long after the act ends.

Also, how crazy is this? The concert itself was also a dinner. So people ate and mingled for a few hours, then the show started. It was at the Winterland in San Francisco, which I didn’t know the significance of, but it was where The Band first performed as a group. I can’t imagine going to a concert like that. What an experience it must have been!

Eric Clapton shows up and plays some blues guitar, which I thought was aces – so intricate. His guitar’s shoulder strap disconnects from his guitar, and Robbie Robertson notices, so he takes over while Clapton gets hooked back up.

Bob Dylan* plays (The Band played backup for Dylan, and indeed when they were living in Woodstock with him, everyone there just referred to them as “the band,” which is where the name comes from), and besides an amazingly Farrell-esq hat, destroys “Forever Young” (in a good way).

* An earlier version of this post mistakenly identified Bob Dylan (top) as Weird Al Yankovic (bottom)


And Levon! Oh Levon. When we saw Levon at the Midnight Ramble, he was old, he looked healthy and happy, but cancer had done a number on him. In the film, he’s gregariously alive, youthful, southern, soft-spoken in conversation with Scorsese, shying away from too much chatter. On stage, Levon shines. I’ve long thought that the ability to sing and play an instrument at the same time is akin to a superpower. Drumming seems especially difficult to maintain, in my opinion – but then, I have trouble doing that thing at sporting events where everyone claps in unison, so possibly I am not a good judge of how hard it is. Anyway, back to Levon. Well, words fail me, so watch:

I get goosebumps every time. There’s a brief interview (just a minute or two) where Levon talks to Scorsese about the concept of the midnight ramble (something about a dr. crazypants rabbitfoot revival, if I recall correctly), and that is the seed of the Midnight Rambles that Levon went on to host in Woodstock later in life.

So this was a long way of saying, everyone who is sort of interested in music should watch this. And then go read this book! It’s very good and interesting and tells you all sorts of things over the origin of The Band, and the various characters who comprised the group.

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