The Last Waltz

While channel-surfing last night, I came across The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film of The Band’s final concert at Winterland in San Francisco in 1976. This is one of the greatest concert films ever made, featuring a godlike lineup of guest stars (Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Bob Dylan) and some insanely great music. Morrison provides a raucous “Caravan”; Muddy moves the Earth with “Mannish Boy”; The Band’s own hits, such as “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia,” rock extraordinarily hard; and the grand finale of the show, “I Shall Be Released,” defines what people mean by the phrase “ragged glory.”

But there was another thing about the film: the number of unexpectedly powerful emotional moments. Take for example “Evangeline,” featuring a luminous Emmylou Harris, shot not at the concert but on a soundstage, in which Rick Danko saws away on a fiddle, Levon Helm plucks uncertainly at a mandolin, a dignified Garth Hudson plays the accordion, Richard Manuel flails away on drums with a demented smile on his face, and the always-elegant Robbie Robertson seems to preside over it all. If all six of them had been costumed as medieval troubadours or hobos on a train, either would have worked–they tapped into a vein of musical timelessness I could have watched for hours. The Band essentially invented the genre we call roots music, that spot where rock, traditional country, and blues meet, and while not everybody on the bill works that space, they all contribute to its existence. (It occurs to me that we need that genre, where real people have real experiences and relate them honestly, even more in 2004 than we did in the 70s.)

But the most powerful moment of the movie for me is one that couldn’t have been apparent when the film was released in 1978. Bob Dylan takes the stage, long hair falling from beneath a peach-colored hat, looking impossibly young and vital–and then he begins to sing “Forever Young.” And suddenly it hits me: What I like most about this film is that the people in it are, for its two-hour running time, back in their prime–that they really are forever young–and those of us watching can steal a couple of hours at that same Fountain of Youth. For two hours, nothing that would happen in the 80s and 90s has happened yet–the corporate co-opting of hit songs for commercial purposes, the skillful marketing of plastic idols, all the ways in which popular music becomes noisier and hollower–not to mention whatever personal losses and setbacks we would suffer in the interim. We are, once again, all possibility. Even though The Last Waltz marked the end for The Band, Robbie Robertson wouldn’t call it that, saying he considered it the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning. And what’s that, if not an acknowledgement of possibilities to come?

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