The Last Waltz

In which The Band's Robbie Robertson becomes a matinee idol, Martin Scorsese regains his touch and a concert becomes a legend

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 266 from June 1, 1978. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

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 Butter-field, 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.

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From The Archives Issue 266: June 1, 1978