The Last Waltz

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about the concert movie The Last Waltz, featuring the Band’s final performance with an all-star lineup of guests. With the death of drummer Levon Helm last week, this seems like a good time to dig out that old post, polish it up a little bit, add some links, and run it again.

[The Last Waltz] 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. The grand finale of the show, “I Shall Be Released,” defines “ragged glory.”

The film is full 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 presides 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 today than we did in the 70s.)

But the most single powerful moment 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 his 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 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 since 1976 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 looked like 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?

Robertson was right about the Band’s potential future. Hudson, Helm, Manuel and Danko reformed without him in 1983 and made three albums with new members aboard. Manuel died in 1986. Robertson reappeared with his mates in 1989 when the Band was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Upon their 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, another reunion took place, but without Helm that time. Danko died in 1999.

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