Friday, April 19, 2002

The Last Waltz (IMDB) (Netflix)
If you disqualify "Woodstock" as being more a documentary about a "happening", "The Last Waltz" might be the best concert film ever (Barbra Streisand TV specials need not apply), elevating The Band's 1976 farewell performance to cultural icon status. One measure of a group is the company it keeps, and the people who showed up to play with them at Winterland that night were mere hacks like Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and of course Bob Dylan, who they backed up when he went electric in the mid-60's. It's said that Beatles' "Let It Be" was inspired by The Band's debut album, "Music from the Big Pink." Not for nothing were they inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

There's a joie de vivre here that today's too-cool-for-school groups avoid, plus a poignancy that comes from the reminiscences of the members of 16 years on the road, and from today's knowledge that, like for most groups, it would never be the same. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson's solo careers were far less influential, bad blood grew between Robertson and Levon Helm over song-writing credits, Richard Manuel hung himself in 1986 and Danko died prematurely a few years ago. The film was produced by Robertson, and directed by Martin Scorcese, and the two became runnin' buddies and mutually reinforcing substance abusers during its making. You can dismiss this as a nostalgia trip for aging hipsters if you want (guilty on the aging count, and for attempted hipsterhood at least), but it's also a powerful encapsulation of rock's persona in the early 70's.

To be seen on the big screen (or least a home theater system), and quickly (releases of this type generally don't play for more than a week or two).

Postscript--I was just listening to a radio program done by two Chicago newspaper rock critics; one of them absolutely hated this film, the other defended it, albeit tepidly. Read some other reviews and decide for yourself.