On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, The Band would play their final ever concert joined by a venerable who’s-who of guest musicians. What would be called “The Last Waltz” was not only a watershed moment for rock music, but for American music as a whole.
So it is somewhat ironic that in this celebration of American music that The Band’s four Canadians and one American, drummer Levon Helm, were joined by even more non-American natives; fellow Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell joined the likes of artists from across the Atlantic like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison.
Then up-and-coming filmmaker Martin Scorsese was approached to document the event by Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, and despite later criticisms from other Band members of an overt focus on Robertson (who went on to supervise the music for many of Scorsese’s other films) the documentary released in 1978 became an influential film in itself.
The performances captured show several stars from the 1960’s on the precipice between their performing prime and their descent into nostalgia acts. The entire night is not only a celebration of music, but the decade’s culture. One that was already giving way to punk and new wave.
And of course the figurehead of the 60’s movement and at one point the man who took the Band under his wing in the middle of that decade, Bob Dylan performs, leading the all-star cast in a sing-along of “I Shall Be Released” at the end of the night. It would be one of the first instances of the same group of musicians singing along to one of their own anthems and having their egos compete on stage.
Such 70’s excesses are clear not only in the performances (like Neil Young’s utterly manic performance of “Helpless”) but in the interview segments that are filled with drunk, substance-fueled non-sequiturs like Robertson explaining the concert’s origin before being distracted by a fly.
“The Last Waltz “(1978) was Scorsese’s first foray into making a film about his second love of rock music. The documentary’s influence was wide and far-reaching; Rob Reiner consciously styled his Marty DeBerghi character in “This is Spinal Tap” (1984) as a parody of Scorsese’s coke-addled and somewhat clueless interviewer who chronicles The Band’s own muddled answers to his questions. And lest we forget the final-but-not-quite-final concert of LCD Soundsystem, covered in 2012’s “Shut Up And Play The Hits,” a fantastic film forever paled by the band’s 2017 return.
“The Last Waltz” remains both a product of its time and an elegaic and celebratory night of American music, with songs that remain timeless. For those hipsters who prefer to shun the traditional Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special, either the film or soundtrack for “The Last Waltz” is the perfect accompaniment for your turkey and stuffing.