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.