Watch 'The Last Waltz' This Week
I grew up an entire world away from most holiday traditions. Being raised Muslim, and not celebrating any of the traditional American holidays, most of them just meant the gift of a long, silent weekend, perhaps a slightly more special meal, pulled from the leftovers of my friends. In college, when the majority of my dorm hall escaped back to their corners of Ohio or beyond, I was often left alone with the kids who couldn’t make the long trip home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, or the kids who had a fight over the phone with their parents and couldn’t bear sitting at a table with them. We’d crowd into some common room, hook a DVD player up to the massive television, still held over from the 1990s, and watch The Last Waltz, the film that chronicles The Band’s final concert with its original members, filmed on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 San Francisco. Our gathering and watching of the film was a small and humble celebration, pieced together with whatever food we could get from the supermarket next door to campus, and whatever plastic utensils we could find in our rooms. This was Thanksgiving, as I first learned to understand it. The Band, and all of their friends, playing like their lives and legacies depended on it.
This is the year The Last Waltz turns 40, and the majority of The Band’s core members are gone. Richard Manuel hung himself in a Quality Inn hotel room in the mid-1980s. Rick Danko drank himself to the grave some years later. Levon Helm, The Band’s centerpiece, who carried on their legacy for as long as he could, succumbed to cancer in 2012. Of the two remaining members, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, only Robertson seems interested in what spotlight can still be drained from The Last Waltz. This is fitting, as the film, at times, feels like a Robbie Robertson documentary, with gratuitous interview sessions including him and his friend, director Martin Scorsese, and excessive onstage shots of him, delightfully overselling each moment. I think about Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson often, how bitterness sat between the two until Levon’s death. Robertson didn’t want The Last Waltz to be the end of The Band; he simply wanted to stop touring. Levon didn’t imagine a world where recording but not touring was sustainable, so The Last Waltz was it. There is a reason it feels like a farewell show for Robertson more than for The Band.
Even with this, very little on The Last Waltz feels bitter. The lightest moments show up in the film when The Band is on couches, reminiscing about their early days, or diving into brief and casual jams: Robertson and Manuel telling a story about how, when on the road, the band would steal from grocery stores by wearing large Canadian overcoats; or Danko and Robertson breaking into a quick impromptu version of “Old Time Religion.” A thing that tends to happen when a band starts to fall apart is that it’s easy to home in on the most public aspects of it and forget that the people likely once enjoyed each other, or, at the very least, have spent an entire part of life together, and all of its intimate moments.
In this way, The Last Waltz, even with its heavy Robertson lens, doesn’t feel entirely self-indulgent. The concert film, at least in theory, should always be trying to achieve this, but it often fails. A thing that seems small but does great work in The Last Waltz is the way the camera so rarely gives us a glimpse of the audience. The camera work is not only brilliant, in typical Scorsese fashion, but it’s also deeply stage-focused. Not just the front of the stage, but small treats, glimpses from behind the curtain. Surprising moments, like Joni Mitchell hiding behind Robertson’s amplifier to provide haunting invisible backing vocals to Neil Young’s “Helpless.” It feels strongly intentional, like a contract with the viewer. Instead of watching an audience watch the incredible moment, the incredible moment exists for you, like you are there in the front row, clinging to a person next to you when Garth Hudson comes out to punctuate Rick Danko’s heartbreaking version of “It Makes No Difference” with a stunning saxophone solo.
It has to be said that the collection of talent assembled for the show is staggering, unlike much else after it. May we all be so lucky to have our friends bid us farewell when it’s our time to turn our backs on what we love, yes, but we will likely not all be so lucky to have friends like these. Picking a favorite guest moment is nearly impossible. You may, at first, fall in love with Ronnie Hawkins’s infectious, screaming energy on “Who Do You Love,” when he takes off his massive cowboy hat during Robbie Robertson’s first guitar solo and mocks fanning the strings of the guitar, an imagined fire burning from Robertson’s fingers. And then there will be Muddy Waters, moving through “Mannish Boy” at a steady and lovable pace, Band members howling at his back. Then there will be Joni Mitchell, giving a small and brief giggle while singing the line “why’d you have to go and lead me on that way” in "Coyote," or Van Morrison, enthusiastically high-kicking in a sparkling purple suit during a performance of “Caravan.”
Or, if you are like me, you will most fall in love with Mavis Staples, perhaps for the hundredth time in your life, during the performance of “The Weight.” After the music dies down, and the Staple Singers squeeze out the passing seconds of their highest notes, before the shadows fall over their faces. There is a flash where Mavis, seemingly overcome by the size of it all, furrows her brow, smiles big, and looks down toward the members of The Band. “Beautiful,” she whispers, not into the microphone, but still loud enough to echo a warmth into any room I’ve watched it in.
Whereas a film like Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, which is also brilliant, exists as a single thread, The Last Waltz exists best as a brilliant and frantic collection of moments, with small breaths in between. It is a film as much as it is a life. One that, of course, allows you to appreciate the vast range of skill that each member of The Band has. Even Robertson, sweating through his shirt while shaking notes out of a heavy, bronze guitar, showcased his ability as both a player and a showman. The film still feels new, even though I know what’s coming. I show it to my friends like I’m introducing them to a new romantic partner, watching for their every reactions to try to gauge how much they like or dislike what’s happening.
Something that can’t be ignored, especially now, with members gone tragically, is the tone of sadness that hangs over the film in spots. The exhaustion on their faces during interviews becomes more real when taking in what the years on the road, especially after The Last Waltz was filmed, did to them. In a scene toward the end of the film, we are taken to a future meeting between Martin Scorsese and Rick Danko, in Danko’s Shangri-La studio. Danko, on the verge of his first solo album, looks exhausted, maybe a bit lost without the original routine of The Band. Scorsese, sitting across from him in a studio chair, asks what he’s been doing since The Last Waltz. Danko gestures to an engineer, pulls on a wide-brim hat, and says, “Just keeping busy, you know. Making music.” The first notes of his song “Sip the Wine” spill into the room, and he stares off into the distance with a smile that translates longing more than happiness.
Watch The Last Waltz at Thanksgiving with people you love still, or loved once and want to love again. If we must push through our holidays, almost all of them historically flawed and frequently uncomfortable, why not find the traditions that honor something greater? The Last Waltz, watched through a different set of eyes, is merely a film about a group of friends who can’t make it work anymore, despite the incredible amount of love they have for each other. It’s a film that reminds us that there is some love that cannot be walked away from without a celebration in its name, even on a holiday. So many of us, in this climate, are rightfully turning our backs on the people and things that no longer serve us, and I hope we are able to celebrate both the leaving and the love for what we have left. Watch The Last Waltz after a tense meal, or a meal that is barely a meal at all, in a dorm room, with all of the kids that a holiday either left behind or was never made for.
The Last Waltz isn’t entirely sequential; many of the songs appear in the film out of order. It begins at the end, with the encore. We first see the members taking back to the stage, Robertson blowing smoke from a cigarette and teasing the crowd with “You’re still here? I guess we’ll do one more.” The camera cuts to Rick Danko, grinning and tuning his bass. He leans into his microphone and lightly says “Happy Thanksgiving” before we see The Band launch into a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It.” We start at the ending, a band that's something like as happy and full as they’ve ever been, one last time.