'The Last Waltz': A Concert Becomes a Legend

In which Robbie Robertson becomes a matinee idol and Martin Scorsese regains his touch

Robbie Robertson, Bobby Charles and Dr. John perform during 'The Last Waltz.' Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Late one afternoon at Martin Scorsese's house, Robbie Robertson greeted the day with a hangover and a ghoulish laugh. Tall, thin and pale, he propped himself up with cigarettes and coffee. Beneath the blear and sleep was a dramatic countenance — the sullen eyelids and confident grin of the man holding cards. His voice sounded like a coal car rolling out of the mines; it sounded like a lot of years. "It's just a too-much-fun headache," he said.

Many afternoons of late he has awakened at the movie director's house. It's been a regular bachelor pad since their marriages broke up. They have spent a year of nights working on their movie, The Last Waltz. Robertson, guitarist and songwriter for the Band, is now a movie producer. He comes off well in the picture, of course. Smashing, even. A potential matinee idol. Some United Artists executives saw the first footage and immediately offered him second lead behind Sylvester Stallone in F.I.S.T. He bowed out.

Scorsese's is an unassuming house, perched over a valley; ominous movie posters are framed everywhere (Robert Donat is billed in the bathroom as "Phantom Lover or Evil Genius?"). Robertson was getting a crash course on movies from Scorsese, who once taught film in college. Stacked in the corner were sixteen-millimeter prints of art movies and tough-guy flicks. Plus this: Cream's Farewell Concert film. They'd kept a lot of nights together.

For years Scorsese has kept rock & roll hours — or was it grave robbers' hours? After suffering his own last waltzes last year and savoring naught but the dregs of gossip and unappreciative reviews, Scorsese spent many, many frazzled, sleepless nights waiting for dawn and watching the all-night movies turn into kiddie programs. As for starting up his next movie, Raging Bull, he felt only "terror," and would continue to feel so until the first screenings of Last Waltz proved that he'd had good instincts after all. So it was worth those till-dawn sessions at sound labs that ran up much of this movie's $1.5 million cost.

Scorsese and Robertson are the same age and boast that they grew up on the same jukeboxes. Both seem to have a strong sense of destiny. Both embrace the romance of a dangerous life. Like delinquent saints, they offer their work to the audience as a hard-boiled religious experience. Robertson knows how to unpeel a poetic phrase, but Scorsese, with his knack for bloodcurdling declarations, can make any can-of-beans act seem like a curtain scene at the opera. (Scorsese: "Robbie tells me when he gets out there and does a song, its like a round in a prizefight. Of course, my next film is about a prizefighter, Jake LaMotta, And I feel everything I do is like a round in a prizefight, whether it's a conversation, a film, or — you know?")

In Robertson's opinion, this $1.5 million, year-and-a-half-long production was more than a Thanksgiving Day concert at Winterland, cracking the hymnbooks with wise and famous cronies like Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison and Neil Diamond. It was kissing the road goodbye. It was removing your hat and taking stock.

"We just didn't know the next time when people like this were gonna get together, for whatever reason," Robertson explained earnestly. "I was a little nervous about letting it slip by."

As the cast of supporting characters grew, so did Robertson's original concept of a home movie, until he figured he had to enlist a real filmmaker. Rock music on film he had seen before, and it was all "Horrible....That's another reason to do this. I watched music on television and in movies, and I asked myself, 'Is this the line of work I'm in?' Because if it is, I find it embarrassing, obnoxious and very poorly done — so less than listening to music in my imagination."

Scorsese he'd met years before when his old company manager, Jonathan Taplin, produced Mean Streets, a street-punk drama orchestrated by a jukebox. Scorsese had just escaped a grueling, twenty-two-week shoot on New York, New York and was living on nerves and smelling salts.

"I hit on him at the worst possible time," grinned Robertson. "He had the play thing coming up [directing Liza Minnelli in The Act], then the little film he was going to do with Steve Prince [An American Boy]. I just told him what was going to happen, and he said, 'Holy Jesus!' I told him, 'I realize you're in a bind; if there were anybody else, I'd ask them. I have to come to you.' He said, 'I can't afford to pass it by." There was no 'Let me think it over.' It was 'When do we start?'

"It was such a relief to do it with him, since he was already ninety percent there. He knows the music as well as I know it. Obscure songs on the fourth album, fifth song on the second side — he knows the words to the third verse."

Instead of the usual rock movie crew with hand-held sixteen-millimeter cameras, they called out Hollywood's best technicians, a full complement of wide-screen professionals headed by cameraman Michael Chapman, who lit up some of the interview scenes like outtakes from Taxi Driver, his last movie with Scorsese. The Winterland stage was dressed up like an antebellum ballroom, and on the sidelines was a recording engineer. It was enough hoopla to make some guests nervous, and some ask what to wear.

One guest wore an indecently large lump of coke in his nostril, and the picture had to be doctored to remove the cocaine booger. He will remain nameless here, because you'd only miss his number for staring at his nose.

Dr. John, on the other hand, wore a smoking jacket, beret and pink bow tie. He looked like Dizzy Gillespie's valet. His "Such a Night" was very friendly, and you could feel it.

One staggering aspect of the concert footage is that the viewer feels as privy to the onstage emotions as any musician there. The big-time cameras picked up all the looks, eyes and glances. The coverage is nearly perfect and puts to shame all those murky rock movies of the past that showed, for instance, guitarists writhing to solos from another part of the soundtrack. When he was an editor on Woodstock, Scorsese became known as the "King of the Triple Screen." But The Last Waltz doesn't need any fancy montages. He worked with a 150-page script and had the lighting cued almost to the chord changes. The sound, laid down on a full studio twenty-four-track machine, was mixed by Rob Fraboni onto four-track Dolby stereo sound for the theaters and sets a new standard. It's nice to have the new sound technology used for something more than a calamity movie.

Future rock moviemakers will have to duplicate this extraordinary sound quality, but even if they use more cameras than on Ben-Hur and round up more stars than there are in heaven, they would still have to find the emotional pitch that makes this one an inspiring farewell goombah.

It is balanced by just enough interviewing, backstage and in the Band's rehearsal clubhouse, Shangri-La. Garth Hudson remains the enigmatic — hasn't he always looked like a 1949 Hudson? Richard Manuel sounds like a rumble in the alley. Robertson stands ready to mop up any comers, even Clapton.

Scorsese took them to a movie sound stage for a few numbers — "The Weight," with the Staple Singers, and "Evangeline," with Emmylou Harris — to fully unleash the snaking cameras, just as he'd been doing all those months on New York, New York. Scorsese came to admit that his big-band picture is really a prelude to the rock picture. Both pictures move from gritty realism to sound-stage gloss, and it is the grit that is memorable.

Onstage with Ronnie Hawkins, they are relaxed as hell; Hawkins acts as if Robbie's guitar solo is so hot that he has to fan it with his cowboy hat. Robertson recounts the Hawkins promise upon their first partnership: they wouldn't get much pay, but they would get more pussy than Frank Sinatra. Later, Richard Manuel reveals that, as far as women went, he just wanted to break even.

Closing with Dylan, the Band does not look so relaxed. Dylan, shrouded in a white hat and curls, sings "Forever Young" and with scant warning, drifts into "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." It sounds less a lover's plea than a call for bruises and pillage.

There was in fact some cantankerousness about The Last Waltz from Dylan — a man who likes to control all that he touches — as to whether he gave his permission to be in any film. He did not want to compete with his own movie, Renaldo & Clara, a tour fantasia shot in a style that harkens back to the rough cuts of the Sixties. (In the Hollywood movie he comes off as a clouded phantom; in his own movie he's rather splotchy.) The argument seemed to be that he wanted his own movie, distributed by his brother in Minnesota, to hit first in certain cities.

But after all, it was Dylan who took them at the midpoint of their sixteen-year career and put them on wheels of fire. With this crowd the land of Woodstock became holy turf. Dylan's old manager, Albert Grossman, took the Band, secluded in a big pink house after eight years of barhopping, and made sure their noble and enigmatic reentry into public life.

However, the release of Music from Big Pink in 1968 aroused only a few piddling tour offers. Then bassist Rick Danko broke his neck, and in the healing time the Band's reputation was spread by the likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison. So when Bill Graham corralled them at Winterland in April of 1969, it was hailed as a second coming.

They played the Woodstock festival ("Looking at the audience," Robertson remembers, "was like looking into purgatory"), but were not in the resultant film because Grossman had ruled against any cameras within spitting distance of their stage.

"Albert enjoyed saying no, too. We kinda followed his instincts. We were never that out front in telling people how we felt about it. It wasn't our business. But with Marty we were able to do it."

With Marty they made shiny their last stand. But Robertson gets just a little testy in explaining that this was no plate-throwing divorce case:

"For us, it was a much bigger decision than that. We weren't moving apart at all. But this thing — we'd spent half our lives on the road. Half our lives." A significant look appeared beneath the droopy eyelids. "I mean, our whole upbringing. Everything — the rules, the street — that's where we got it from. We felt like a debt, a very warm spot. We felt it was incredibly cruel and dangerous, something that could eventually just call your number." He suddenly snapped his fingers. "We had come to a point: we could tell something was going to happen. Something wrong. Something....And this isn't talking about the guys individually, this is talking about the Band as a train itself. It was us, saying goodbye to the road.

"You could say, 'Big deal, saying goodbye to the road.' For us, it was a big thing. Sixteen years." Confidential voice: "Goodbye to anything after sixteen years is strong....

"This could be a gloomy situation. We could just not say anything. Or, we could do it like a New Orleans funeral. But people can't resist the soap-opera element. 'Saying goodbye to the road, New Orleans funeral' — it all sounds romantic. But it doesn't give you that People magazine satisfaction: 'The dirt — let's get some dirt on it."

Okay, I said. Let's go all the way. You could break up in the manner of Sam & Dave, amid hairy stories of backstage knife fights.

Robertson seemed interested. "I thought about it already. Sam & Dave. It's either Sam & Dave or the Mills Brothers. We just don't want to be out there until people say, 'Listen, we've heard you a million times. You're old men, go home.'"

Robertson lit up another cigarette. "You know, the story behind The Last Waltz is frightening. It's all a coincidence, but...many, many last waltzes within The Last Waltz. I feel like getting this project done with."

More than that he wouldn't say. He offered a painful grimace and a laugh that could've been a bowling ball rolling around in a hollow washtub. He sure had a stylish way with that cigarette. Even Bette Davis would ask for lessons.