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Martin Scorsese
Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood, Neil Young

Rated PG

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Dolby Surround
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 117 min.
Price: $24.98
Release Date: 5/7/2002

• Alternate Opening
• Audio Commentary With Director Martin Scorsese and Musician Robbie Robertson
• Audio Commentary With the Band and Others
• “Revisiting The Last Waltz” Featurette
• Archival Footage
• Photo Gallery
• Trailers
• Production Notes


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The Last Waltz (1978)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Despite my virtually lifelong status as a big rock fan and my perusal of many music-related home video releases, I must admit a couple of classics never made it into whatever players I’ve owned. I still haven’t seen the famed Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back; actually, I tried to rent it from Netflix a few times but they were always out of it!

Although many regard it as the greatest concert film ever made, I also never took in 1978’s The Last Waltz. Partly this occurred due to a lack of opportunity, but it also happened because the subject simply didn’t interest me much. After all, it doesn’t matter how well constructed a film it may be; if I don’t like the music, I’ll have trouble with it.

But I must admit I felt very curious to finally give The Last Waltz a whirl and see if it merited all the praise. With the new release of a special edition DVD, it seemed like I should finally take the plunge and check out this legendary concert film.

After 16 years together, the Band decided to call it quits in 1976. They started as the Hawks, a support band for Ronnie Hawkins, and went on to semi-fame as the act who played behind Bob Dylan in 1965. That was the year Dylan made his controversial transition from acoustic folkie to electric rocker. In 1968, the Hawks became the Band and released their first album, the seminal Music From Big Pink. They never achieved immense commercial success, but they influenced many other acts and clearly enjoyed a special place in rock history.

Back in 1976, a 16-year rock career seemed like an eternity, and folks in their thirties appeared ancient. The big deal made about the end of the Band seems especially odd since they’d been a solo act for such a short time; when they split, they’d only existed as a recording entity for eight years.

Nonetheless, they made an impact in that time and they had many powerful friends. When the Band decided to quit, they chose to go out with a bang. They planned their final concert for Thanksgiving 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland. They recruited a slew of big-name colleagues for a show they called “The Last Waltz”.

As part of this process, the Band concluded they needed to really document the affair. They landed then up and coming director Martin Scorsese to achieve this. Coming off of the success of Taxi Driver, Scorsese was mired in the misery of New York, New York, but he took a break to work with the Band.

The result was a classic. Scorsese didn’t just set up a few cameras and take what he could get. Instead, he planned intensely for the show. He studied the songs and came up with storyboards to optimize the presentation of each tune. Scorsese also worked with the Band and others to create the strongest visual imagery; the stage set and lighting were set up to create something that would work well on film.

From this came a smooth and engaging affair. As I already noted, many view The Last Waltz as the greatest concert film ever made. I can’t do that, if just because the music doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Actually, that’s not totally true. While I watched the movie, I enjoyed many of the tunes more than I expected. The program offered quite a few good songs, a fact definitely aided by the solid musicianship on display. The bond between the Band seemed extremely evident throughout the concert, as they blended nicely and played to each others’ strengths.

But although I liked the music more than I expected, nothing convinced me to radically alter my viewpoint about the Band. I feel they were very good but simply not my cup of tea. If I had to pick highlights from the guest stars, I’d select the terrific interplay between guitarists Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton during “Further On Up the Road”. I also really liked the performance from Muddy Waters on his own “Mannish Boy”.

To my modest surprise, many of the best moments came from the Band’s own tunes. I knew many of these and never much cared for them. However, the numbers worked well here. Tracks like “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” seemed more alive than I imagined. A lot of this resulted from the tight playing. I’d never realized what an excellent guitarist Robertson was. He provided crisp and stinging leads throughout the show, and his work added unexpected edge to the numbers. The entire group was solid, but Robertson stood out to me.

In addition, The Last Waltz displayed the Band about as well as one could imagine. Scorsese’s preparation paid off nicely, as he created a smooth and fluid presentation. To his credit, the enterprise seemed seamless and effortless. There’s nothing showy about it, but Scorsese always kept the focus placed appropriately on the musicians and the songs. I rarely second-guessed his choices, and Scorsese managed to represent the performance and translate it solidly to the screen.

While most of the movie focused on the action from the stage, Scorsese varied the material via some interviews with the Band. These offered some decent information. They didn’t provide a great level of insight, and some of the members didn’t come across especially well. Robertson seems somewhat full of himself, while bassist Rick Danko and keyboardist Richard Manuel appeared like serious stoners. Still, the material helped spice up the presentation, and we got enough useful notes to make these clips worth a look.

A few of the performances came from material filmed after the final concert. Scorsese took the Band to a soundstage, where they did numbers like “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris and “The Weight” with the Staples Singers. They also did “Theme From the Last Waltz” in that venue. The transitions from the real live arena to the soundstage occurred neatly. They didn’t pretend to be from the same setting, which was a good choice, and I felt they blended well.

Ultimately, I still can’t choose The Last Waltz as one of my favorite concert films. I liked the music but not enough to allow it to supersede material from artists I prefer. However, I can’t dispute that it offered a very well executed affair that consistently seemed engaging. It made the material come to life and it stands as one of the genre’s top efforts.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+ / Audio B+ / Bonus A-

The Last Waltz appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though a few small concerns appeared, the picture looked very good as a whole.

Sharpness seemed solid. The movie displayed a nicely distinct and crisp image throughout the film. At times, the cameras went slightly out of focus, but obviously that related to the original material. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no problems, and I noticed no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws also were minor. Some grain appeared during a few low-light situations, and I detected occasional white specks, but that was about it. Otherwise, the picture came across as quite clean and fresh, especially given the age of the film.

Colors appeared very good. The movie featured a warm, golden scheme, and the DVD replicated those tones well. The hues seemed vivid and vibrant throughout the film, with no signs of noise, bleeding or other issues. Black levels appeared dense and rich, while shadow detail came across clearly; low-light scenes seemed appropriately heavy but not excessively dark. Overall, the image was quite solid.

Equally strong was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Last Waltz. As one expects for a concert presentation, the mix remained largely anchored in the front channels. Within that domain, the track showed a nicely broad and expansive stereo image. The music spread splendidly across the forward speakers and offered a wide soundstage. The various instruments seemed appropriately located within the spectrum and they blended together cleanly. Some panning occurred via the vocals; for example, during “The Weight”, singing moves from the side to the center as the camera moved. This happened in a reasonably seamless manner.

Surround usage largely remained limited to crowd noise. The rear speakers also provided good reinforcement of the music, but I noticed little distinct material in that realm. Mostly I heard the crowd ambience, and the surrounds offered a good sense of place and atmosphere.

Audio quality seemed very strong. Vocals appeared natural and distinct. The singing showed no edginess or problems, as the performers always sounded clear and accurate. All the various instruments sounded solid as well. Guitars rang and stung nicely, while drums were punchy and crisp. Bass response appeared good overall, though I thought the program could have shown greater depth; low-end seemed a little lackluster at times. However, as a whole the soundtrack was quite positive.

One note about subtitles: while The Last Waltz includes a few options, they appear during the concert only for non-musical moments. None of the songs provide lyrics. We see text for between song chatter and the interview segments. That’s fine, but I’d like lyrics as well.

The DVD release of The Last Waltz offers a mix of nice supplements. We find two separate audio commentaries. The first one features musician Robbie Robertson and director Martin Scorsese. Both were recorded separately and the results were edited together. Robertson clearly watched and remarked upon the movie for his remarks, but it sounded like Scorsese’s parts resulted from the same interviews that provided his material in the DVD’s documentary.

Although both contribute good material, Robertson dominates the commentary. He provides information about the genesis of the film project and gives us notes about all of the various guest performers who appeared during the show. Essentially, he elaborates on what the Band wanted to do with the concert, and offers a little about their mindset at the time, though I would have liked to hear more about the dynamics between the players and how they reacted to the end of their era. Scorsese tosses in some nice details about his influences when it comes to the use of music in movies and covers his efforts to appropriately document the concert, along with many of the problems he encountered. Overall, this is a pretty solid track that provides a consistently informative experience.

The second commentary combines a slew of participants for this edited track. We hear from Band-members Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, journalist/Band friend Jay Cocks, journalist Greil Marcus, creative consultant Mardik Martin, executive producer Jonathan Taplin, associate producer Steven Prince, cameraman Michael Chapman, music producer John Simon, New York, New York producer Irwin Winkler, and performers Mavis Staples, Dr. John, and Ronnie Hawkins. All of them were recorded separately except for Simon and Helm, who sat together. I really enjoyed this commentary. It included a wealth of information. From technical aspects of creating both the concert and the movie to Band history to musical interpretation to various anecdotes, it’s all here. The piece moved by briskly as it kept me thoroughly entertained at virtually all times. Some folks don’t like edited commentaries, but naysayers should check out this one; I find it hard to believe anyone could complain about such a terrific chat.

One nice feature: the second commentary can be viewed with or without subtitles. If you activate that text, you’ll see the names of the participants when they speak. This helps keep us informed without having to incessantly repeat names.

Next we find some video programs. Revisiting The Last Waltz provides a 22-minute and 30-second documentary. It shows clips from the movie, some background materials like storyboards and conceptual art, and interview segments with Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese. Overall, this is a good little documentary. In some ways, it seems a bit redundant after the Robertson/Scorsese commentary - especially since Scorsese’s material clearly comes from the same sessions - and the absence of other participants is somewhat odd. However, it acts as a solid discussion of the movie and the concert. It covers the project from conception through completion and stands as a nice synopsis of the process. While not a definitive document, “Revisiting” covers the movie well.

Next we find Archival Outtakes Jam 2. This informal performance features three-fifths of the Band (Robertson, Helm and Hudson) plus Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Carl Radle, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young. The jam runs for 12 minutes and 15 seconds and can be screened with either 5.1 or stereo audio. According to the DVD, this piece offers the “only archival footage available from The Last Waltz.” That seems odd, considering all of the footage shot, but anyway you look at it, it’s all we find on the DVD. I’ve never been a fan of jam sessions, and this one did nothing to change my mind. It’s rambling and pointless. Only die-hards will enjoy it, but I admit I’m glad it made the DVD; it’s better to find too much material than too little.

Note that the last few minutes of the jam offer no visuals. This segment was the penultimate number of the evening; only one song - “Don’t Do It”, which opens The Last Waltz - According to a text screen that appears toward the end, the cameras began to overheat from excessive use, so they were shut down as the song progressed.

A few other extras round out the package. The Photo Gallery splits into four subdomains: “The Concert” (71 shots), “The Studio Shoot” (39 images), “The NYC Premiere” (10 photos), and “Posters and Lobby Cards” (13 stills). It’s a nice collection, and it’s made better through the inclusion of subtitles when appropriate; those help flesh out many of the pictures.

In the Trailers area, we find two clips. There’s the movie’s original theatrical ad as well as a “teaser” ad. Finally, the DVD’s package includes an eight-page booklet with some fine production notes written by Robbie Robertson. While not perfectly definitive, I really liked most of the extras found on The Last Waltz; MGM did an excellent job with this package.

While I can’t say I agree that The Last Waltz stands as the greatest concert film ever made, I can’t deny that it’s a fine piece of work. I like some of the music, but much of it leaves me cold. Nonetheless, the presentation remains terrific at all times, as Waltz provides an elegant and visually compelling film. The DVD seems absolutely wonderful as well. Both picture and sound quality are very solid, and the set includes a wealth of fine supplements. The Last Waltz merits a home in the collection of all rock fans.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4415 Stars Number of Votes: 77
3 3:
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