Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Last Waltz

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring:  The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manual, and Garth Hudson), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, the Staples Singers, Ringo Starr, Martin Scorsese, and Ron Wood
IMDB Entry

The greatest rock concert movie ever (as the cast list shows).

The Band was one of the biggest of rock groups in the late 60s and early 70s, but are surprisingly obscure today.  They started out as a backup band for rocker Ronnie Hawkins, but were thrust into the spotlight when Bob Dylan asked them to join him on stage when he went electric. When Dylan had his motorcycle accident, the group got together in a house in Woodstock and recorded some songs; the album "Music from Big Pink," was a classic.  The follow up "The Band," made them into stars -- reluctant ones, but stars nonetheless.The Band: Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson

In 1977, songwriter Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits and the group performed in a special farewell concert, and asked a few of their friends to perform with them. They also asked Martin Scorsese to direct.  Scorsese had already established himself as one of Hollywood's top directors, but he knew his rock and roll (he had worked as editor and second unit director on Woodstock, the second greatest rock concert movie).

Scorsese appears in the film, interviewing the Band and talking with its members. The interviews are not very in-depth; Scorsese is a better director than interviewer.  But I've always had the suspicion that his appearance here had some influence on the creation of the character of Martin DiBergi, "director" of This is Spinal Tap (a look at the IMDB indicates this might be so).

But the movie is about the music. The Band plays most of the best-known songs: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Weight, "Stage Fright," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In," and "Ophelia," among others.  There are also some new studio songs that are just as good.

But the guest stars are what really shines.  Usually, one-time all-star conglomerations suffer from everyone being too respectful to cut loose, but here each musician has his or her own time in the spotlight.  And the Band started out as a backing band, so they knew how to let the star take over.Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson

Some of the more memorable songs include Muddy Waters's singing "Mannish Boy" as though he invented the blues single-handedly, Eric Clapton performing "Further on Down the Road" and playing amazing riffs as though he wasn't just warming up. Joni Mitchell does a terrific version of "Coyote," Neil Young performs "Helpless," Van Morrison shows his stuff with "Caravan," and, of course Bob Dylan is given a special spot in the limelight.

The Band then went their separate ways.  Levon Helm -- drummer and singer for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" who thought breaking up the group was a bad idea -- tried a little acting (he played Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter), as did Robertson (in the great little film,Carney). But the group never reformed.

The odd thing is how a group this well known has slipped of the radar, but the answer is simple:  The Band never had a hit single.  Their albums did fine:  four in the Billboard top ten, but the best they ever did with a single release was #25 for "Up on Cripple Creek."  (The most successful chart hit was when Joan Baez's rather bland and inferior version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" made it to #3).  Thus, they have no presence on "Classic Rock" radio.  Occasionally, you may hear "The Weight" (it was recently used in a wireless phone commercial and has been featured in quite a few movies), but nothing else.  It's one of the major gaps in "Classic Rock" (the other being Traffic).

But don't bemoan.  Listen to the concert on either DVD or CD and listen as the Band begins to play.

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