"The Last Waltz" at 40: The Band and their classic movie speak beyond boomer nostalgia

Scorsese's 1978 movie with Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Muddy Waters appeals powerfully to younger musicians too

Published November 19, 2016 8:30PM (EST)

 (United Artists)
(United Artists)

The consummate musical cliché of the baby boomer era is the big, guitar-wielding encore where a bunch of white men in long hair and casual clothes take turns singing one verse after another of a really long, usually blues-based, song. Sometimes it is followed by a boomer-iffic group hug among presumably straight men.

In its crudest form, this describes the enormous, multi-band, marathon concert that came to be known as “The Last Waltz”: a rock-till-dawn gathering assembled by The Band, a quintet of roots musicians who had once backed up Bob Dylan, to play a farewell show alongside their old boss. Old friends and inspirations like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John and Muddy Waters joined in as well (and, for some reason, Neil Diamond showed up).

As humble as The Band’s identity was — this was a group without a lead singer, after all, and which saw itself as channeling the spirit of the American past even though most of them came from Canada — the concert itself was like the final stand of rock’s royalty. It was a celebration of a legendary group, of the fellowship of the road, of the passing of an era.

But what’s funny about “The Last Waltz,” which was filmed on Thanksgiving 1976 in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and released as a Martin Scorsese film two years later, is that it didn’t just engage nostalgic boomers. It spoke to music and film fans — some of whom would go on to become important players in a country-derived tradition The Band had helped inaugurate. Forty years later, it's still a milestone. 

“Oh, man, it really blew my mind!” said the normally dry Gillian Welch, the pioneering new-acoustic musician, born in 1967, who didn’t hear the original three-LP album or see the film until she was in college. “So much of the music I loved — all in one show. I was unprepared for what it looked like when you played music that sounded like that. They were moving more than I thought. Oh man! They just looked like gods to me. I think it honestly went into me at a cellular level.”

The musician James Felice says he and his fellow Felice Brothers — an upstate New York roots band mostly in their early 30s — saw the film only about a decade ago. “I just remember feeling a palpable sense of awe at The Band's musicianship,” he said by email. “Each guy was so damn good, and had such unique style and personality, but they made it work perfectly together. They were basically rock and roll superheroes, like ‘The Avengers’ or something.”

What’s surprising about this boomer milestone, made and released before most Xers were out of elementary school — some, because the birth range typically goes from 1964 to 1981, were not born yet — is how the movie connects across generations.

Part of it is just that this concert saw a collection of some of the greatest and deepest musicians if any generation. Some of it is Mojo-magazine-style nostalgia for a more authentic age. “We all romanticize that period so much,” says Taylor Goldsmith, the 31-year-old lead singer of the band Dawes, whose first few albums grew right out of the ground The Band plowed. Some members of Wilco, including bassist John Stirratt, are also major fans of the film and the group.

But part of it may be that “The Last Waltz” and the story of The Band — especially for those who know the whole tale — signified both boomer utopia and Gen X disillusionment at the same time. Nobody was killed, and no one OD’ed on the brown acid. But with one movie, Scorsese and The Band produced Woodstock and Altamont simultaneously. On its 40th anniversary, which sees Rhino reissuing the recording and film in various versions, it's as ambiguous as ever.

* * *

Around the time of The Band’s Thanksgiving concert (which involved a turkey dinner served to thousands of audience members), the course of rock history was changing in a profound way. The group was retiring partly because its members were worn out from the road, but they also recognized that they were the final gasp of something — of a rock ’n’ roll tradition that was grounded in the Chicago blues, gospel and the rockabilly of the South. (The movie’s inclusion of Muddy Waters, the Staples Singers and their old boss Ronnie Hawkins was in some ways a nod to this.)

So it was not just vainglory to dub the concert “The Last Waltz”: This really was the end of something. Some of these musicians would have late-career renaissances years later — Neil Young and Dylan most notably — but most of them had already peaked artistically by 1976, and even their best work would seem out of place in the new world.

Glam musicians like David Bowie and Roxy Music had electrified young music fans, and made the denim-and-fringed-vest crowd look like backwoods day laborers. The year before the concert, a New York City poet named Patti Smith had released a volcanic debut album called “Horses” that went so deep into feminism and contemporary politics that even Joni Mitchell seemed positively medieval.

By Thanksgiving, history was bending. CBGBs was now more important than the Fillmore West: Its denizens, the band Television, had recorded punk rock’s most poetic LP — “Marquee Moon” — a few months before, and the gawky geniuses of Talking Heads had just signed to Sire. Britain was burning: The Clash and The Sex Pistols had just played a show together in Sheffield. If this new generation had its way, this would be a last waltz indeed. By the time the concert film was released, two years later, punk bands were moving into mid-career (the Clash was dreaming up “London Calling”), and “New Wave” showed a second, more pop-savvy vanguard led by a lanky, bespectacled Liverpudlian who had cheekily named himself for the king of rock ’n' roll. The Sugarhill Gang would score hip-hop’s first hit with “Rapper’s Delight” just a year later.

This kind of irreverence, aggression and sonic experimentation was most decidedly not what The Band or “Last Waltz” fellow travelers like Eric Clapton or Emmylou Harris or Ringo Starr were about.

Gen Xers and their younger compatriots, though, grew up in a world shaped by punk and hip-hop, and the moussed-out glitz of MTV. And somehow, this earnest, often blues née country née folk-based music, so different from what this younger crowd heard on the radio and saw on television, would make profound sense to some of them. 

* * *

As celebratory as the concert was, as sincere its treatment of the music’s old guard, there was a darkness to “The Last Waltz” that was different from what the group may have intended. Some of the band members were wasted from drugs. The Band’s guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson told a backstage anecdote — the film was full of moments where the musicians spun stories from the road — that involved playing with legendary bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, who would alternate playing harmonica with spitting blood into a can.

Most seriously, perhaps, the members of The Band — after 16 years on the road — hated each other. At least some of the time. Robertson was the only one dedicated to a retirement from touring; the others weren’t as sure. And it didn’t get better when the movie came out. Levon Helm, the band’s drummer and sometime singer, was particularly upset. “For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut,” he wrote in his memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire.” “The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck.”

Robertson was most outgoing member of the group, and an engaging and charismatic storyteller, but at times it seemed like pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson, who both sang as well, were barely part of the group. (Helm and bassist Rick Danko fared a bit better.)

The reality cut against the image of the band, memorialized in part by a bravura chapter in Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'N' Roll Music,” as a group of ego-less, passionate friends, singing vocal harmonies that could help the nation heal after the divisions of the Vietnam war.

When Goldsmith saw the movie in 2008, around the time Dawes was recording its debut album, “North Hills,” he saw, mostly, the dream. “You heard that there’s a whole philosophy to the group’s name: The guy who wrote the songs didn’t sing them, and there was no lead singer. It was so democratic. That’s what created the romance. You think of partnerships like Keith and Mick, or Lennon and McCartney. This was like a five-way relationship — that rock ’n’ roll band romance — epitomized in American rock.”

Perhaps appropriately for younger generations that inherited a less innocent nation after the reveries of the boomers, some Gen X and millennial fans responded to the film not in spite of, but because of the pain and tension.

“It made you want to see more of it, because it sounded like so much had been left out,” says Michael Trent of the Americana duo Shovels & Rope. “As much as I hated to take sides,” says his wife and bandmate Cary Ann Hearst, who was won over by Helm’s description of being an Arkansas country boy visiting New York City, “it’s hard not to. But it didn’t change my mind about the movie, or its sweetness.” Shovels & Rope sing a song about Hudson, “The Last Hawk,” on their new album.

As a first viewing of the movie became an obsession for young musicians, their point of view grew more complex. Some learned, for instance, that they were not really hearing what was played that night: Much of the parts were later overdubbed in the studio because the playing was so sloppy. “The more you get to know about ‘The Last Waltz,’ or get to know about Richard Manuel — in the film he’s pretty tweaked out… It was a pretty tragic story,” says Goldsmith. “They seem upset with each other. But it doesn't make you love them any less.”

The hard tales from the road, the stories of personal tension, and the rigors of the touring life only excited Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings even more. “It means there was all this life behind this one concert,” she said. “You’d drive around for 20 years — yeah, that’s what you’d do. I honestly think it’s altered decisions Dave and I have made. We drive around in a Cadillac, and have been doing that for 20 years. You don’t take a shuttle to the airport.”

The Band — most of whom played with Dylan on his tumultuous 1966 world tour (as “The Hawks), on his epochal “Blonde on Blonde” album, and on the rough home recordings later released as “The Basement Tapes” — certainly had some great years before things all went bad.

But the albums after their first two — “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band” — only occasionally approached the old magic. And post-“Last Waltz,” their solo careers mostly faltered.

Things went from bad to worse. In 1986, Manuel hanged himself after ingesting liquor and cocaine. A heart attack after decades of drink and drugs killed Danko in 1999. Helm ran a series of “midnight rambles” at his farmhouse in Woodstock and made several celebrated albums in his 60s. But cancer took him in 2012. Hudson and Robertson are still alive.

But that’s not entirely all.

My interest in this group, album and film are not entirely archival. As a kid, I was dragged, partly against my will, to see the movie at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. It was a double feature with “Singin' in the Rain,” which I knew and loved, but I was, at 10, not the least bit interested in waltzing. At the time I was a pure British Invasion-and-Dylan zealot — the idea that country rock even existed or could be any good had never crossed my mind. My father insisted.

But from the first scenes of backstage pool-playing and the one-two-three punch of Band songs “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” and “It Makes No Difference,” my life changed. It took me years to get deeply into alt-country and the blues and Van Morrison, but I was launched on a journey. My dad wasn’t always right, but he often was. I dedicate this story to his memory.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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