Martin Scorsese: brilliant director, lousy interviewer. Lucky for us, there’s much more of the former than the latter in his legendary 1978 concert film The Last Waltz, which shapes The Band’s farewell show at the San Francisco Winterland into a combination wake, celebration and rollicking rent party.
Yes, Scorsese gave Spinal Tap all the ammo it needed as he lobs softballs to the bandmates and makes goo-goo eyes at Robbie Robertson. But damn, do these performances hold up beautifully: The Band stomping through “The Shape I’m In” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” Muddy Waters working his snake-charmer mojo on the camera with “Mannish Boy,” Van Morrison looking like a large grape but delivering a powerhouse “Caravan.”
Featured performers include Emmylou Harris and The Staple Singers (filmed in a separate soundstage segment), Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Neil Diamond (?). But the show's stolen, as it was in most situations, by the late Levon Helm in his lusty, rascally prime. There's some irony in the movie serving as an epitaph, as Helm rarely had a good word to say about it over the years. The truth is, even if he felt slighted, he easily matches Robertson's charisma as a camera subject here, and in the performance segments he's clearly the beating heart of the band. His recent loss will give the goodbyes on screen a sharp new pang.
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