Why the Band's 'The Last Waltz' Is the Greatest Concert Movie of All Time

How Martin Scorsese's film of group's legendary farewell show changed the way live music felt onscreen

As 'The Last Waltz,' the Band's legendary farewell concert, turns 40, read how Martin Scorsese's documentary of the night changed rock cinema. Credit: Rex

"This film should be played loud!" It's a cliché now, a concert-movie disclaimer that's become the equivalent of that hippie-dippy tagline from those Freedom Rock compilation ads ("Well, turn it up, maaaaan.") But in the late Seventies, when it first flashed onscreen in all white font against a stark black background before the credits of The Last Waltz, you knew it meant business. Keep moving that volume knob clockwise, folks. Let the needle swing into the red.

And then we begin at the end, with the weary members of the Band shuffling onstage to hoarse cheers. "You're still here, huh?" asks guitarist Robbie Robertson. "We're gonna do one more song, and that's it." Drummer Levon Helm stretches; bassist Rick Danko smokes a cigarette and wishes everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. They've been at this five or more hours now, poring through their back catalog and backing every celebrity guest along for the ride. Along with pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumental mastermind Garth Hudson, they tear into a funky "Don't Do It," their customized cover of Marvin Gaye's "Baby Don't You Do It." After the last note, Robertson says, "Good night. Goodbye." Exit, stage left.

Forty years ago today, the Band gave their final concert in their original lineup, a massive swan song that these Canadian troubadours turned into an all-star spectacle. Calling the event "The Last Waltz," the group's de facto leader Robertson – who'd grown tired of being a rock & roll road warrior – and San Francisco promoter Bill Graham staged a no-expense-spared adieu that started with a Thanksgiving feast and ended with everyone from Neil Diamond to Neil Young accompanying the quintet. As far as farewells go, this one was major, and it might have been relegated to the you-had-to-like-have-been-there-man history books had a bearded, jittery Martin Scorsese not decided to ditch some responsibilities and call in some favors. The idea was to simply record the evening for posterity, though the then-35-year-old filmmaker had a few ideas of his own to add in to the mix. What he ended up with was the definitive document of these American-music scholars, an epitaph to a specific era of rock history, and the single greatest concert movie of all time.

Though it didn't hit theaters until April 1978, The Last Waltz is the time capsule that we talk about when we talk about that marathon bicentennial show; for some fans who never saw the Band in their blissed-out, buzzed-out-of-their-skull heyday, it's usually the first thing that comes to mind. More than Ronnie Hawkins' bar-band commandos, Dylan's basement buddies and electric-folk enablers, or even the guys who gave us the game-changing Music From Big Pink, they're the guys on that Winterland stage, tearing through gutbucket blues runs, New Orleans rave-ups and hillbilly-holler ballads. Next to the iconic black-and-white picture of the group standing in a field that graces the left inner panel of the Pink LP, it's their main visual representation, and the difference between these two documents speaks volumes. That 1968 photo positions these five musicians as old-timey outlaws going against the hippie grain – the rock group as Dalton Gang. The guys in 1976, dressed in everything from Robertson's Italian gigolo duds to Manuel's plaid suit ("something W.C. Fields would wear to a wedding" Robertson remarks in his new memoir, Testimony), are the B-side versions headed for a burnout. After 16 years on the road, the Band are no longer musicians who seem beamed in from another time. They're men running out of time.

So when Robertson decided that he'd had enough and wanted the Band to call it a day as a live act, he pitched the idea of one last gig to Graham, since San Francisco was where they first played under that name. The guitarist was also thinking about the possibility of filming their final bow; the original Woodstock pioneers joined the longhairs who'd flooded their new home for an era-defining concert, only to witness themselves cut out of the narrative when their performance was left out of the iconic accompanying doc. (Most folks don't even know that the Band played those three days of peace and music.) He remembered seeing a screening of Mean Streets, which had been produced by the group's tour manager, Jonathan Taplin – and he remembered the movie's director, a live-wire Italian-American who'd helped shoot Woodstock and loved rock & roll. A lot.

Martin Scorsese was neck-deep in finishing New York, New York, his ill-fated attempt to fuse Old Hollywood musicals and New Hollywood revisionism, when Robertson and Taplin approached him. The last thing he wanted to do, or was allowed to do by his producers, was take on another project before he delivered a final cut. But the notion of being present at something symbolizing the sun setting on rock's unruly early adulthood, and with a guest list that read like a who's who of modern popular music, was an offer he could not refuse. "I don't have a choice," Robertson quotes him as saying in the oral history Bill Graham Presents. "I must do it."

A series of secret meetings leading up to the Thanksgiving show laid out the game plan. Production designer Boris Leven would dress the ballroom with sets borrowed from the San Francisco Opera House's production of La Traviata, including chandeliers used in Gone With the Wind. (Though Graham claimed over the years that he came up with the concept.) Instead of shooting the affair with handheld 16mm Bolexes, the norm for music docs, they'd capture it on 35mm, with professional cameras and sync sound. A script which detailed the set list and lyrics to each song was put together, so the director and head cinematographer Michael Chapman could chart where the cameras needed to be for each number. And rather than turning their lens on the audience grooving, the focus would solely be on the musicians onstage. "We've seen the ultimate audience movies in Monterey Pop, and certainly Woodstock," the filmmaker told Richard Schickel in the book-length interview Conversations With Scorsese. "This was different. The form of it was important to me – the camera movement to music, the editing, capturing the live performances." 

And that's when things got revolutionary: The Last Waltz remains one of the only concert movies in which both of those words had equal weight. Graham often said that Scorsese and company "missed it," because the lack of attention paid to the people who paid their $25 to dig Bob Dylan looking like, per Roberston, "a Christ in a white hat." There was no sense of community, he griped. But there's an incredible sense of the community onstage that gets captured by making this a performance film first and foremost, and that was exactly what Scorsese was after. The director wasn't interested, he said, in showing two girls giggling and then cutting to Rick Danko looking like a Tiger Beat pin-up; he wanted to see Helm shooting Danko a glance as they lock into the beat and go into the bridge of "Ophelia." It's as cinematic a rendering of the alchemy that musicians – and especially those five Band members – produce when they're caught in that spotlight.

Had the Taxi Driver director simply instructed his camera crew to point their Panavisions at Robertson & Co., they would have still documented magic: Muddy Waters growling out a lust-fueled "Mannish Boy"; Neil Young leading his fellow Great White Northerners in singing "Helpless," with behind-a-scrim stealth back-up from Joni Mitchell (and extra help from Bolivia; Helm confirms in his autobiography This Wheel's on Fire that a "traveling booger matte" was needed to cover up Young's nostril-centric extracurricular activities); Van "The Man" Morrison kicking and screaming his way through a soulful "Caravan"; the aforementioned appearance by Dylan, whose "Forever Young" and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" (he refused to let Scorsese record all four of his numbers, fearing the footage would overshadow his own Rolling Thunder Revue project Renaldo and Clara) remind you of the mercurial, majestic bond between Bob and his fellow Americana obsessives.

But watch the way Scorsese and editors Jan Roblee and Yeu-Bun Yee switch between Band players in sync with the beat of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (did Helm ever sound better?), or back and forth between Robertson and Eric Clapton as they trade solos. Or how the camera glides behind Ronnie Hawkins and his former "Hawks" as they finish up "Who Do You Love?," emphasizing the way the group functions as one chugging organism. Or how the framing of the performances, especially "The Shape I'm In," reflects the amount of intimacy it took to make this music work? Or even the genius notion of starting the film with the encore, before flipping back to the show proper, in all its 35mm glory? This was where the medium's vocabulary met up with and enhanced the documentation of a moment, a live experience and a eulogy for the end of the road – or at least a final tip of the hat to a glorious era in North American music history.

And when United Artists gave Robertson and Scorsese more money for some do-overs, they brought everybody back several months later and filmed three extra performances on a soundstage. No, these weren't proper Last Waltz bits, but thanks to Scorsese's chops, these addendums complemented everything that took place at Winterland to a tee. The Band's gospel-heavy take on "The Weight," graced by the Staple Singers, is pure Sunday morning testifying – it's the sequence everyone singles out. But what you remember as much as the sublime performance, however, is the way the cameras creep out from Robert's double-neck guitar intro and swoop around the singers as each one gets their verse, and the triple "Aaaand" attack that cuts from Helm to Danko to Robertson in time with their harmonizing parts. Long before music videos, Scorsese understood how to film rhythm. If he and his crew were hemmed in by mitigating circumstances at the concert, they could still nail lightning in a bottle. Given free rein, they create a genuine rock-of-ages showcase.

And more than anybody, Scorsese understood how much it weighed on these guys to say goodbye to each other, even if drugs and frayed nerves and internal tensions and the era's excesses had necessitated a throwing in of the towel. Even if you don't know that The Last Waltz actually begins with the show's final number, you sense the one-more-for-the-road vibe. It's the film's very last musical interlude, however, that reminds you that you've watched both an extraordinary concert movie and something more than that. As the group plucks out the instrumental "Last Waltz Suite," the movie pulls back from Robertson's guitar to include Danko on an upright bass; we rotate and Manuel, playing a lap-steel guitar, comes in to the frame, as does Helm on mandolin and Hudson behind a bank of organs. They're playing together. The film is still playing it loud. The movie and the music are fused now. The camera pulls back farther and farther, until the shadows of these men loom larger, very large over the musicians themselves. Right before the credits roll, the Band have become dwarfed by the darkness around them, but they still keep playing. Until they don't. Good night. Goodbye.