When The Last Waltz was first released, in 1978, rock and roll was in the midst of one of its periodic upheavals, as disco entrenched itself in the Top 40 airwaves and punk rock came rumbling up from the underground, hell-bent on causing as much trouble for the establishment as possible. That a film documenting the last concert by a band who had gotten their name and risen to prominence backing the ’60s icon Bob Dylan — after all, if he was the Songwriter then they were the Band — wasn’t completely overshadowed by the events of the day was a bit of a miracle in and of itself. Especially when you take into account the film’s guest list, a ’60s-centric parade of luminaries that included Dylan, Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Dr. John, and Ringo Starr.
But the Band had always been special, suffused as they were in an air of mystery that came from having spent all that time in Woodstock with Dylan working on the infamous "Basement Tapes" and from playing music so steeped in arcane Americana that there was something sepia-toned about their sound — a timeless quality that seemed at once ancient and new, as if they’d discovered those songs they wrote about Civil War tragedies and roadhouse redemption tucked away in some Underground Railroad passageway in a haunted ante-bellum mansion out in Woodstock. The Band’s ability to move the focus from the protest-movement ’60s back to some distant if not quite fixed point in time when the primeval blues first washed over the dusty plains of America and sowed the seeds of rock and roll made them, in 1978, the perfect messengers to bring the news that it wasn’t necessary to close the book on the previous generation altogether — that, somewhere down the road, some of this stuff might be useful again.
And so The Last Waltz survived as a cult classic, thanks in part to the fact that it was directed by cinema heavyweight Martin Scorsese and in part to the unique place the Band occupied in the history of rock and roll. As many people will learn from the "25th anniversary" limited theatrical re-release of a newly cleaned-up version of the film, a special-edition DVD (with plenty of footage not included in the film), and a four-CD box set that collects all of the music recorded at the Band’s final concert on Thanksgiving 1976 (including two tracks titled simply "Jam #1" and "Jam #2"), plus some studio work they later completed for the film, as a document The Last Waltz has come to overshadow the event it was meant to commemorate over the past quarter-century. Even during the interview segments with the band, the film makes no mention of the great lengths the Band and Bill Graham went to to make "The Last Waltz" an Event — how, for a mere $25, everyone who came to the show at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom was treated to a Thanksgiving dinner followed by dancing to the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, how only then did the Band take the stage for a performance that included a 40-minute intermission.
Indeed, watching the film again, for at least the 10th or 11th time from start to finish, I was surprised at how much is left unexplained. Why are two of the tunes — "Evangeline" with Emmylou Harris and "The Weight" with the Staples Singers — performed on a different stage in front of no audience? Why do the chandeliers that adorn the Winterland stage look like the ones from Gone with the Wind? (In fact, they are the chandeliers from GWTW — a little inside joke, no doubt, from Scorsese.) And if you’re wondering what 2002 is the "25th anniversary" of, the answer is that it conveniently splits the difference between the 25th anniversary of the concert and the 25th anniversary of the film’s release.
The restored version of The Last Waltz doesn’t shed any new light on the events surrounding the show. As Robbie Robertson, the Band’s guitarist and de facto leader, explains over the phone from his home in LA, he and Scorsese started out with the intention of simply restoring the film, and the project grew from there. "Marty is such a film preservationist that his people were like, ‘Let’s get the film so it looks excellent by today’s standards. Let’s go back and restore this thing so that the blacks are jet black and the colors are warm,’ and all that stuff. And then it was like, ‘Well, I’m going to remix the music in surround sound,’ which was fine just for the movie part of it. But for every little stone I turned over, there were three more stones underneath that, meaning that the project just kept getting bigger and more involved. I mean, the original record was three vinyl discs, but even at that length we had to shorten songs, and there was a lot of music that just wouldn’t fit. So we had all this other music that we’d had to put aside back in 1978. What I decided to do was to go in, get the master tapes, and starting from scratch mix the whole thing all over again — not just the 30 tracks that were on the original LP but also the 24 bonus tracks that had never been released before."
In other words, what the theatrical release lacks in terms of "new" material is more than made up for by the four-CD Rhino box set, which was released this past Tuesday, and by the MGM Home Entertainment Special Edition DVD, which is set to hit stores on May 7. (The Last Waltz is also scheduled to air on VH1 on Saturday May 11, at midnight.) The supplementary material answers that question about Emmylou and the Staples Singers — as Robertson himself explains, "We did play ‘The Weight’ at the concert, but without the Staples Singers because they were on tour in Europe when we were doing ‘The Last Waltz.’ And Emmylou was somewhere else as well. So we performed ‘Evangeline’ with her and ‘The Weight’ with the Staples separately because it was just so important to be able to involve the influence of country music that Emmylou Harris represented and the gospel music that the Staples represented."
Like most of the rest of the Band — bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist Garth Hudson, and pianist Richard Manuel — Robertson was born in Canada. (Drummer Levon Helm, who grew up in Arkansas, was the only American-born member.) Yet from the seminal "The Basement Tapes" right on up through the final encore of "The Last Waltz," the Band seemed to take it upon themselves to act as conservators of unadulterated American music. It would be hard to imagine another band from that period — or from any period — bringing Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and the Staples Singers to the same stage in a way that made sense of the connections among the styles of music these performers represented. But the Band seemed to have a natural, unstudied appreciation for the ways in which the accidental interplay between Tin Pan Alley, for example, and the music of the Deep South helped fertilize the soil from which rock and roll would grow. More than anything, that was the Band’s gift: they were enough of their time to bring out some of the biggest names in music for their final concert and yet timeless enough to live beyond the reach of a single generation. Their music sounded old to begin with, so there was nothing a few more years was ever going to do to harm it.
Or perhaps, through wisdom or luck, Robertson just knew that there was much to be gained from disbanding the Band while they were at their peak, rather than riding it out for as long as their fans and their bodies could tolerate it. The Band did regroup without Robertson for a time, but in 1986 Manuel, just 40 years old, hanged himself, and Danko died in his sleep in 1999, at the age of 56. At times The Last Waltz seems to go out of its way to place itself in 1976 — the Mean Streets/Taxi Driver–style spin through the gritty city at the start of the film is classic Scorsese, as is the rough-hewn quality of the interview footage with the band. Indeed, there’s an innocence about the way everyone but Robertson responds to the camera that’s almost quaint. (Robertson knows he’s playing a rock-and-roll role, and he plays it for all it’s worth.) But even Scorsese can’t tie the Band to the tracks of a time that was about to be torn up by the runaway train of punk rock.
"We were just pedestrians moving down the escalator of life in those times," Robertson observes. "We had gone through this whole thing of the ’60s, with the madness and revolutionary ideas that came out of that whole period, and the meditation and drugs, and then, towards the middle and end of the ’70s, it all just kind of blew up in the sky. Suddenly it became really apparent that a lot of this stuff people were doing could be dangerous, from alcoholism to smoking too much grass to losing your mind experimenting with cocaine and LSD. The reality of it all just reared its head and destroyed the fantasy that everyone had been living in up to that point."