The Last Waltz shouldn’t be as great as it is.
By the time Nov. 25, 1976 rolled around, tensions within The Band were running high. Robbie Robertson was road-weary. Levon Helm was not at all on board with the group’s retirement plans. Rick Danko was already at work on a solo album. Richard Manuel was being destroyed by alcoholism and, according to Helm’s 1993 autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire, drinking “seven or eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day.”
And yet, remarkably, that Thanksgiving, they managed to transcend all of that for one last, phenomenal show. They didn’t break bread—although those in the crowd at the Winterland Ballroom were served turkey dinners—but they gathered, joined by a star-studded collection of friends, collaborators and influences, and left a final artistic statement far greater than it had any business being.
Of course, there were factors beyond The Band itself that should have, on paper at least, affected the quality of The Last Waltz. Bob Dylan nearly walked, threatening the whole film, which Warner Brothers had agreed to finance on the condition that he appear in it. Neil Young was famously coked-up (and presumably not the only one—just the only one whose nostril had to be cleaned up in post-production). Muddy Waters’ performance of “Mannish Boy” almost didn’t get captured because Scorsese only had one camera running at the time.
And yet, in spite of all that, The Last Waltz is the best movie of its kind. To call it a concert film doesn’t give its revealing interview segments their due, and to call it a documentary is to ignore the truths of the group that Scorsese overlooked or left out. It’s a music film, plain and simple, one that—like the band it depicts—is greater than the sum of its parts.
There’s a feeling that runs through all of The Last Waltz, a magic that elevates its tiny moments to the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. When Eric Clapton’s guitar strap snaps during “Further On Up The Road” and Robertson takes over his solo without missing a beat, it feels like a small miracle. When Dylan’s transition from “Forever Young” to “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” gets a little awkward and there’s that brief moment where no one seems to have any idea what’s going on, we watch them work it out without a word, getting themselves back on track by exchanging a few pointed glances.
When Ronnie Hawkins crosses his eyes and lets out a particularly strong wail during “Who Do You Love” and we see him laugh afterwards, it feels weirdly intimate, like he surprised himself and we caught him. When Mavis Staples smiles and whispers “beautiful” after the last chord of “The Weight,” the love she has for the music is palpable, and it feels nothing short of incredible.
When Van Morrison shows up in that bedazzled maroon suit, looking like a magnificent Celtic cranberry, and busts into those high kicks at the end of “Caravan,” we are filled with a very specific kind of joy—the kind where something’s funny and mind-blowingly great at the same time and you’re just happy and thankful that you’re alive to witness it.
The music stands on its own (go back and listen to Rick Danko’s performance of “It Makes No Difference” or Helm’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again—they’re among The Band’s all-time best). But the visuals elevate The Last Waltz to some higher, otherworldly plane.
Garth Hudson’s hair flying around as he moves from keyboard to keyboard during the intro to “Chest Fever” somehow further highlights his musical genius, making him look like a mad scientist at work in his lab. The fact that you can see Helm’s breath under the stage lights in that close shot during “Ophelia” shouldn’t make his vocals sound extra passionate, but it does.
He’s pretty visibly drunk during the interview portions of the movie, but somehow we can still see glimmers of the old Richard Manuel, whether it’s the look in his eyes as he explains how they settled on calling themselves The Band or the face he makes when conversation turns to the women they’ve met on the road and he cracks, “I just want to break even.” And when Danko mumbles he’s “just trying to stay busy,” plays Scorsese a snippet of his solo material and gets that melancholy, contemplative look on his face, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, but it’s just as beautiful as anything else in the movie.
You can criticize The Last Waltz for being self-congratulatory, but if anything it’s a testament to what heights can be reached when a band puts aside all its in-fighting, returns to its roots by playing behind guest artists of all stripes and just lets the music and all the lovely moments that it brings take over.
That’s what makes The Last Waltz impossibly good, and that’s why it has endured for 40 years. It shouldn’t be this good, but it is. All we can do is marvel at it every year before the tryptophan does its thing and extend—as Dr. John puts it—”thankfulness to The Band and all the fellas” for leaving us with an unparalleled document of the power of live music.