Spotlight 1978: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life

Robert Lyren on The Last Waltz. This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

The road was our school, it gave us a sense of survival and taught us all we know. You can’t press your luck, the road has taken a lot of the great ones…it’s a goddamn impossible way of life” – Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz

Mean Streets, 1973. Baby-faced Robert De Niro enters the bar with two young girls. As the camera tracks down towards an equally young Harvey Keitel, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ blasts out as a perfect music cue.

In his first film, Martin Scorsese established himself as the preeminent rock music director, a title he has held fast for close to 40 years. Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of music is a cornerstone of his auteur standing. Quite simply, Scorsese and rock and roll go hand in hand. Who better than to helm the swan song rock film documentary for one of the most respected rock bands of the 1960’s & ‘70’s? Yes, Robbie Robertson knew whom to go to when he needed someone to film The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz.

The Band was a group of Canadian musicians who formed together as a backing band for rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins between 1958 and 1963. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm went on to play for and collaborate with some of the most popular and influential musicians of the 1960’s and ‘70’s including Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. In addition to recording several successful albums and singles, The Band spent 16 consecutive years on the road playing on tour. In 1976, The Band decided to break up amicably and it was commemorated by a Thanksgiving Day concert that year called The Last Waltz performed in San Francisco.

If it is safe to judge someone by the company they keep, The Band stands to be viewed with exceptional respect. The best musicians from different genres and generations came together to celebrate The Band presumably because these titans know how significant The Band was to rock music. The range of performances seen in The Last Waltz is stunning. Chicago Blues legend Muddy Waters performs ‘Mannish Boy’, Neil Young delivers a blistering cut of ‘Helpless’, Van Morrison brings ‘Caravan’, Eric Clapton slices through ‘Further Up The Road’.  

And then there’s Dylan. The Band and Dylan had a singular relationship. It was Dylan who coined the name, The Band. The Band was on Dylan’s infamous 1966 Electric Tour, notable for the Royal Albert Hall show where one dissatisfied fan yelled to him, ‘Judas!’ After which Dylan turns behind to The Band and says, ‘Play it fucking loud, man!’. Despite their history together, Dylan’s appearance wasn’t without problems. Rumor has it, he was negotiating with the producers of the film over the release date of The Last Waltz moments before he went on stage. But once everything was settled, Dylan and The Band fell into old habit without hesitation. Countless dates on the road left them capable of predicting each other’s movements and tone. ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘Forever Young’ sounded seamless.

Peppered throughout the performances are a series of quick interviews with The Band conducted by Scorsese. These segments are short and not necessarily intended to divulge any great secrets but rather to offer a soft backdrop of who these guys are, particularly drummer/vocalist Levon Helm who quietly plots out the acquired sound of The Band by way of Memphis/Delta blues and northern rock mixed with a dash of Nashville country. Helm channels a blue collar truck driver, sucking down Marlboro’s while calmly reflecting on where they all started.

At the end of the film when Robertson laments the effects of being on the road for sixteen years – when he warns of not pressing your luck, the goddamn impossible way of life – he isn’t theorizing. That feeling is very real in The Last Waltz. There is a visible strain in The Band’s faces. Their faces wear the journeyman struggle, the mystery of the road warrior cum musician. Sixteen years of smoky bars, long bus rides to the next gig, drugs, alcohol and girls waiting backstage. Sixteen years of pounding out great performances with other great musicians, night after night. There is no flair supporting the wonder of what they are doing on stage in The Last Waltz. It’s pure musical mastery. Their clothes are dark muted colors; they wear thick beards to hide their faces, with sunglasses and big brim hats.  One of the most authentic moments of the film comes when Eric Clapton is performing a guitar solo in ‘Further Up The Road’, where in the middle his playing, Clapton’s guitar strap comes loose during his solo. He shouts out, ‘Rob!’ and Robertson, without missing a beat, picks up the solo himself and continues on. It’s pure musician professionalism, sixteen years of playing live night after night summed up in one blissful rock moment.

The no frills production protects the film from becoming dated. What you see is what you get – two hours of great music and pure performances. A gathering of master musicians doing what they do best – celebrating great music together for us to enjoy. The Last Waltz is a window of music that captured a specific time and feeling that has long since passed. The film does not propose to answer why things happened they way they did with this exceptional group of musicians, perhaps because the questions are more important than anyone’s answer. I suspect that is why the film is considered one of the greatest rock documentaries ever made.

Robert Lyren is the co-host of Lost in Translation, a weekly radio show that airs every Saturday night at 9 PM on Jam 88.3. 

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