Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Last Waltz (DVD)

Without changing a single letter, The Band's name underwent radical changes in significance over the years. What started as a modest, almost anonymous tag turned iconic by 1969, when The Band released its second album, also called The Band. What was this group that effortlessly channeled so many streams of American music (never mind its mostly Canadian composition) into such an unmistakable sound? It was simply The Band. By the time of its Last Waltz concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 (rock 'n' roll's first retirement party), its larger-than-life, all-encompassing nature had begun to overwhelm it. Could one band really contain so much? The short answer was no, and as the quality of the group's output slipped and the relationships at its center disintegrated, The Band's name took on a slight air of pretense. Oddly enough, the same qualities that made it an unwieldy enterprise after its years of easy brilliance helped make the Last Waltz, documented in Martin Scorsese's 1978 film of the same name, a major event. Scorsese's guest-star-packed celebration of The Band—as well as its major collaborators (former employers Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan), favorite contemporaries (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell), key influences (Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, The Staples Singers), and, ultimately, popular music as a whole—doesn't always capture The Band at its best. But the affair's gravity compensates for any lapses in the nearly impossible task of doing right by so many legends. Though it does contain great music, The Last Waltz is also the rare concert movie that could work without the sound. Thanks to Scorsese's command of imagery, much of it pre-planned to a greater degree than the event would seem to allow, The Band could have played the greatest hits of Freddie And The Dreamers and still looked like rock gods. The film only falls short of its subject by failing to delve into the group's messy politics. During Scorsese's interview segments, everyone seems strung out on all the wrong drugs, their camaraderie frayed by forces stronger than 16 years spent in close quarters. Later years would bear this out, as members met untimely ends and communication with chief songwriter Robbie Robertson broke down. Filled out by features dominated by Scorsese and Robertson, one-time roommates who remain friends and occasional collaborators, this new DVD edition doesn't delve too deeply into those issues, either. That may be unfair to history, but it's true to the spirit of the film, a virtually peerless document of a single moment in which a rock era took a slow fade to black.


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