Near the end of Martin Scorsese's film about The Band's final stage performance, Bob Dylan - short and taciturn beneath his heroic white fedora - finds himself on stage with the venerated Dutch uncles of rock. The song wishes the listener happiness and prosperity but most of all it hopes that he or she remain forever young. It's a suitable coda for a movie that symbolically punctuates the end of the '60s - a decade that existed, among other things, on a dream of perpetual youth.
A sort of rock'n'roll equivalent of the Airport movies, The Last Waltz is a cameo-laden documentary about the lavish last stand of The Band, four Canadians and an American who started out in Toronto 16 years ago and chose to play their last date before 5.000 people at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in November, 1976. Directed by Scorsese (Taxi Driver, New York, New York), allegedly because he was young enough, at 36, to have sympathy for the music, it combines a standard assortment of multi-camera, fast-cut, wrinkle-close performance shots of The Band and artists made famous by the '60s such as Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, with occasional ill-advised production numbers filmed in the jarring quiet of an MGM sound stage. Bracketing all this are bits of off-stage interviews with The Band. (In one, Band drummer Levon Helm plays sly dumb-as-dirt cracker to Scorsese's fidgety Ratso Rizzo questioner; hilarious.)
Where the movie scores is in the quality of the sound. Scorsese has used a sophisticated 24-track recording system and the music is wonderful. Joni Mitchell, all cheekbones and gaunt translucent skin, and looking vaguely displeased with the excess of it all, sings her Coyote in a sort of languid scat. Even hook-nosed Bob Dylan proves that despite a recent round of inane and alarmingly egocentric interviews he can still rattle an audience down to its Earth shoes. The finest moment, however, is a rare appearance by our own Neil Young, a disheveled Hamlet singing Helpless, backed by The Band and the silhouetted sweet soprano of Joni Mitchell. Pure pleasure.
But what makes this small document worth more attention than previous limo-groupie-sweat rock movies is Scorsese's attitude to his subject. In a subtle departure from tradition he uses no orgiastic crowd shots, no scenes of backstage wenching or dope-sucking. Even the interviews are largely irrelevant; The Band, as well as the other aging and reclusive stars, are no more human to us in the movie than they are in life. Scorsese kisses off the '60s and his youth by treating the decade's most recognizable symbol, its music, as an artifact. He separates it from its birthplace in the streets and lovingly presents it as pure form, each act unsentimentality placed before us for dispassionate judgement. A rock 'n' roll Louvre.
But then, if you've never argued over the name of the Northern Ontario town in Neil Young's Helpless or don't know what mends you up on Cripple Creek, take a pass on The Last Waltz. You had to be there.TOM HOPKINS
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