This record of The Band‘s last concert – after sixteen years on the road – was shot on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, directed by Martin Scorsese.
Apart from the five band members – Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko – a wealth of musical talent was there, both for support and to perform.
The staggering cast includes Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young (wide- and wild-eyed on Helpless), Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo and, of course, Bob Dylan – a tense affair because 15-minutes before he was due to play, Dylan announced he wouldn’t.
The concert footage was interspersed with a few studio sessions plus Scorsese’s interviews with band members, mostly asking them about life on the road.
For The Last Waltz, Scorsese chose to shoot in 35mm (which at one stage he had wanted to blow up to 70mm), a first for a musical documentary. It’s worth seeing in a cinema, partly because the director took uncommon care over little things like camera placement and content, but also because they really crank up the volume.
At times, great sadness and weariness seem to hang over everything, then to be transcended by such moments as The Band and the Staples Singers singing The Weight, and by Muddy Waters‘ Mannish Boy and Joni Mitchell‘s Coyote.
The Band themselves do what is probably their best ever gig: Up On Cripple Creek, The Shape I’m In, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia – they’re all there and all glorious.
Scorsese chooses to go for the spectacular finish with everyone singing I Shall Be Released.
The Staples Singers