In all of the music that I have come to love in my life, there is usually some throughline of joy, and if not joy, at least some form of catharsis. Those that know me or have read some of my other stuff know about my affinity for the genre of emo, and that comes from not the anguish and angst it’s come to be known by, but the heart-on-sleeve emotional brazenness, the daring ability to sound like a celebration when the soul is feeling anything but. Over the years this interest has drawn me mostly towards punk tinted corridors, but I found a seemingly endless fount of joy in a place I would have never expected: the filmed final concert of legendary rock band The Band directed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz. It is a film so loving in its open-armed approach to music, so revelrous in its basking in the glow of a great band’s twilight, that it is emblematic of everything I have come to love about the art form.
The Band are a synthesis of my heritage in music, combining my dad’s love for southern rock and my mom’s folk rock tendencies into a colossal project that provided major influence to both of those genres in the coming years. However, I myself never loved these things coming up. Their presence was constant, but the sound was so foreign to a young man discovering punk rock and, almost as a result, moving outside of my parents’ sphere of influence. I’ve now found the heart of these things, specifically in The Band, and their way of writing music that spoke both to the spiritual and the worldly sides of life. I would compare it, maybe inaccurately, to the writing of John Prine in its transcendent homeliness.
Both of these sides are shown to their full effect in The Last Waltz. The band themselves don’t present themselves with any flair, and none is added by Scorsese. The concert takes place in the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and that’s about all that can be said about the actual aesthetics and set up of the show. The Band stands up there and looks as if it were any ordinary show, only spotlights and stage lights used to present them, no theatrics necessary. This is where at least half of the beauty of the performance comes from. There’s no attempt to show it as anything more than what it was: a great band playing one last great show.
This is also where the real joy of the film makes itself known. The Band were a fantastic studio band, but you can tell that the stage is where they thrived and at times exceeded beyond the expectations set by their studio recordings. Because of this, the music feels less like a greatest hits set and more like a celebration of a legacy, not just of The Band’s, but of music as a whole up until this point in 1978. Throughout the show, famous friends and influences join the band for songs of their own or to accentuate The Band’s music, with Muddy Waters leading the band in a rendition of “Mannish Boy” as an example of the former, and Mavis Staples joining The Band’s many vocalists for a breathtaking version “The Weight” for the latter.
This obvious love and respect for rock music’s history is where a lot of this jubilation comes from. The Band obviously present some of the best versions of their own songs, like the horn-laden performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that I think of as the definitive version, but, in a certain sense, the film isn’t really about The Band. They are the performers and the stars of the behind the scenes action, sure, but the real star of the film is simply the music.
This might be a trite observation (it *is* a concert film after all), but what The Band do on that stage in San Francisco is about more than The Band as a singular entity. I believe that Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson would have been just as obviously elated and enraptured as they were even if they spent the whole time playing music that wasn’t their own. Even if they wouldn’t experience this joy interpersonally with their numerous documented issues with each other, it’s so apparent that they have a deep and boundless infatuation with music, not just their own music but the music of their pasts and the music of their peers. This is accentuated by the last sequence of the film, where the band plays an instrumental theme to the film to an empty hall floor, so enveloped in the trade they’ve given their lives to that an audience doesn’t particularly matter.
When the entire cast of guest singers joins The Band at the end of the concert for a performance of I Shall Be Released, it’s almost like a worship service, all manner of people gathered together to pay tribute to an entity that gives grace to anyone willing to receive it, an eternal well of love and expression that spans generations into infinity. It, along with the entire film, is everything beautiful about music spun into an immortal document by Scorsese: collaboration, passion, history, and most of all, joy. It’s all at once testimonial and offering, brought into the world by a rag tag group of disciples. However, unlike its name implies, The Last Waltz is not a bookend or a finale. On that stage, The Band did not die, but showed how they would live forever as long as music still holds power in this world. 41 years later, it still does.