Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz begins, appropriately, with the last song. After a pre-credits title tells us that ‘This Film Should Be Played Loud!’, the five members of Canadian-American rock group The Band come out on stage for an encore during their final concert on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The five men launch into the soulful “Don’t Do It,” and then walk off stage. It was meant to be the last song they would ever perform live. Scorsese’s landmark concert documentary begins at the end, and brings the audience into the story, into the experience, from there.
That artistic choice, to begin the film at the end, is indicative of the film’s whole approach. While this is a lively film, it is not a you-are-there first-person thrill ride of a concert. It is, rather, a nostalgic look back, with all the sweetness and bitterness that the word “nostalgia” implies. Scorsese begins at the end so that the rest of the film vibrates with a feeling not of rock ‘n’ roll raucousness but of the sensation that something is passing away from you, slipping from your hands, able to be recalled but never able to be fully grasped again.
The Band were never chart-topping pop icons, and they spent a decade as road-wearied backing musicians, first for obscure Arkansan-Canadian bluesman Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins, then most famously for Bob Dylan. honing their craft and growing familiar with the colorful but repetitive life of a touring musician. By the time they broke through to fame and success in the late 1960s, they already seemed as though they were old professionals.
The film The Last Waltz has all of that aged maturity: not jaded, but knowing, and wise. 1976 – two years before the film came out – was a strange time for rockers of The Band’s generation, something that the film captures with its procession of at-times mismatched rock stars making special appearances at The Band’s last concert, gently easing their way into the earliest days of middle age. The revolution was over, the troops were out of Vietnam, Nixon was a glum pariah in his California estate, and people like The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison – they were too old and too established to become punks, but too wild and rough around the edges to settle into simple respectability.
Scorsese’s camera, and Michael Chapman’s beautiful cinematography, capture the contradictions and the singular flaws of each member of The Band and each of their special guests at their last concert. Neil Young, cocaine coursing through his veins, appears wild-eyed, sweating, and twitchy, in a drab olive jacket that is not too far removed from that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. An out-of-place Neil Diamond appears in garish Las Vegas fashion, and Scorsese’s camera captures the sight of his amber-tinted sunglasses reflecting back on his eye sockets. At times, Joni Mitchell is shown as an almost abstract black silhouette against a heavenly blue background.
The Last Waltz is a film that is not content to merely photograph musicians performing music; it wants to capture, like a great painter, the beauty of individual moments and details of a subject.
Between the songs, the members of The Band (most notably the talkative Robbie Robertson, who would go on to be a regular Scorsese collaborator) shoot pool, drink, smoke, and tell stories about life on the road. Knowing that their days as a touring act will be coming to an end, they look back on their lives together — reminiscing about stumbling into a bar fight at Jack Ruby’s strip club, tipping over cigarette machines to get smokes, witnessing blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson spitting up blood in between jam sessions. All of these anecdotes in another film might take on a slightly horrified feel, but here they’re like flipping through the pages of a yearbook, so thick and vivid is the sense of warm wistfulness.
By the time a viewer gets to the end of the film, after all the guest stars have come and gone, after the crowds have dispersed, Scorsese shows The Band playing on a soundstage, empty of all living souls except themselves. They perform the “Theme from The Last Waltz,” an original faux-classical composition that calls to mind not Jailhouse Rock and A Hard Day’s Night so much as Visconti’s The Leopard.
In this masterful final sequence, a single tracking shot pulls away from The Band before craning into the air and floating away from them, until star-like lamps are all that remains on screen. The credits roll, and The Band has now passed into the night – like a dream you forget as soon as you wake up, recalling only that you had a dream, and that it was beautiful and strange, but nothing more.