Guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson of The Band turned seventy this month, and that milestone got me thinkng about The Last Waltz. Some folks call it the "best concert movie ever made," and it has a lot going for it in that respect: Martin Scorcese, who has a deep feel for the power of music on film, made the movie, for one thing. But as The Band's formal swan song, it was also one of the most highly orchestrated musical events of its time. And that all leads back to Robbie Robertson, who was both the creative soul of The Band and the man who, in fear of burning out too young, dismantled it all before it could run itself into the ground.
In retrospect, Robertson's decision to give up those grueling years on the road wasn't entirely off the mark. In the wake of The Last Waltz, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko both continued on a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to Manuel's suicide and Danko's untimely death at the age of 56. But it also caused friction between the old bandmates that they could never overcome. When The Band died, it died hard.
Some of the best parts of The Last Waltz rise out of storytelling, which is also what made Robertson's songs so memorable: The interviews interspersed between performances spill over with memories from the road, and those moments are real and vital in the same way a tune like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" evokes something stronger than nostalgia. The Band was the understated driving beat under all of pop music of the time -- they were the ultimate bar band, and made everyone they played behind sound better. And on their own, they couldn't be beat.
The 1976 concert marked not only the end of The Band, but the end of an era in pop music. Again, retrospect makes this clear: Its stars -- Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and so many others -- took rock from the '60s into the more bombastic '70s; by that time, the tides were turning away from folk- and blues-based incarnations toward punk, new wave and even the earliest rap. So this is a musicological document, too: If you want to know why the '60s were so important, give it a chance.
The Last Waltz is available on DVD from Netflix.
Susan Froyd, in another life, toiled for a few years in some of Denver's most beloved and belated repertory cinemas. She has also seen a lot of movies over a lot of years. In this weekly series, she'll recommend forgotten films, classics, cult favorites and other dusty reels of celluloid from the past.
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