The Last Waltz

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 1978): Almost instantly considered a jewel in the rock-doc crown, Martin Scorsese’s reverentially mounted movie of The Band’s final bow on Thanksgiving Day, 1976 has become somewhat tarnished over the years, and largely because the late Levon Helm successfully called it — in his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s on Fire — on its bullshit. According to Helm, not only did guitarist (and instant movie star) Robbie Robertson nudge The Band to a premature end so that he could get a movie made by his buzz-hot buddy (and former roommate) Marty Scorsese, Robertson also finagled so that — in the movie — he’d seem the band’s most critical member and had furthermore already made a dubious legal arrangement (with the delightful Albert Grossman) ensuring a lion’s share of the post-band Band’s publishing rights came his way.

That the charges stuck in the minds of so many isn’t really that surprising: if there’s one perennial truism that runs through the history of popular music like a black, sludgy vein of the Mississippi itself, it’s that the truth is always probably somewhat messier and dirtier, and best assessed through the greasy filters of money and ego. This is so self-evident by now that some of us simply presume that bullshit is the price of popular music — good, bad and otherwise — and that the truth really only matters in the way it did on that other frontier where legend always tended to grab the glory and gallop away. Which is to say as a reminder that the only thing that really matters is the music, and the fact is The Band, which consisted of four scraggly and gifted Southern Ontario refugees — Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson — and one son of an Arkansas dirt farmer (Helm), made some of the most amazing and enduringly distinctive music of their day.

That this music is so carefully and exhilaratingly captured in The Last Waltz, which is arranged as a kind of tribute party cum jam session in which some of the band’s biggest influences (Muddy Waters, The Staple Singers), heavyweight contemporaries (Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison) and former boss-men (Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan) step out for a number or two and step off for the next featured guest, is of course why the movie registered so quickly as something significant and special, but there was another element of Scorsese’s m.o. which also rendered The Last Waltz almost as instantly vulnerable to such compelling revisionist accounts as Helm’s.

In between those frequently blood-pumping musical numbers — some from the concert, others, like those with Emmylou Harris (‘Evangeline’) and the Staples (an absolutely stirring rendition of ‘The Weight’), shot on a soundstage — are a number of interview sequences which are almost impossible to see the same way once Helm’s version of events has parked itself between you and the movie. The fact is, Scorsese does tend to privilege Robertson’s account of events over everyone else’s, and Scorsese does tend, through the deft alchemical collusion of editing choices and sheer charisma, to frame the guitarist as the movie’s primary star and host-storyteller. For one thing, the only person who seems to be speaking definitely on behalf of the need for The Band’s retirement is Robertson, and for another no one speaks for The Band’s influences — and, ergo, the guest performer lineup — as much as Robbie Robertson. In these sequences, there is no question that the impression of The Band as Robertson’s band is virtually inescapable, and this is only made retrospectively more apparent when you watch the rest of the members during these sequences after you’ve been acquainted with Helm’s version of events: Helm seems mostly to sit quietly (too quietly) back while Robertson does most of the conversational driving; Danko seems to appear only for the purpose of providing endorsement of Robertson’s anecdotes; Hudson barely figures as a conversational player; and poor Manuel (who would hang himself after a gig in 1986) mostly seems just utterly and sadly wrecked.

But if those passages of The Last Waltz have become impossible to watch in quite the same way over time — which is not to say that they’re any less riveting for it — the music itself has, if anything, only become that much more monumentally impressive. And here’s the thing about musicians, or at least those musicians whose connection with each other exists on a level that somehow transcends all earthly considerations of interpersonal nonsense and bullshit: as a both a backup band and a force unto themselves, The Band were almost unparalleled as a mutually attuned musical unit, and this quality of rare performative synchronicity — which had to be what drew Dylan to them in the first place — resulted in some of the most remarkably authentic-sounding, dirt-grounded, weirdly timeless ‘roots’ music to be heard in the American post-folk revival era. Together as musicians, these guys had a thing that not only clicked but chemically reacted, and the fact that it’s so starkly in evidence on the stage of the Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976, at a time when resentments were likely as high as most of the guests likely were, is simply sure-as-shit proof of greatness. Ultimately, the intrusion of what may well be the truth of The Band has in this case only clarified why the truth will always struggle to be heard over the music. (MGM)