At some point I suppose I have to reckon my lukewarm regard for The Band as a conscious and foolish decision to deprive myself of one of the endearing figures in rock music. The first step is admitting the problem; the second is taking a proactive step. So I did this week by picking up a DVD of the 1978 classic concert film “The Last Waltz,” shot at The Band’s 1976 farewell performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The movie’s mystique, carried by the premise of a beloved group calling it quits at its artistic peak, endures in critical circles as both a filmmaking and musical triumph. That it was shot by Martin Scorcese, who already owned claim to one of the best movies ever made in “Taxi Driver,” only enhanced the mystique.
Was it everything I expected? Sure, I’ll go with that. It was what it was: a finely tuned ensemble of veteran musicians commanding a wide variety of American musical styles with a loaded roster of guest players, captured in action via expert camera work. But much like 1970’s “Woodstock” (which featured a young Scorcese among its crew), it was the pieces rather than the whole that interested me. An unintended guitar lick. Singers harmonizing with careless perfection. A smile (or scowl) shared across the stage between bandmates. A moment of “I’m-too-old-for-this” candor amid the bravado of backstage interviews. These are the slices of life Scorcese captures so well.
Here then are some snippets that stood out, along with some general observations on the film:
1. Scorcese is a master. Yes, we already knew that, but his visual grasp of the concert stage is remarkable. There are a lot of moving parts during a rock show, yet the camera angles and focal points are invariably spot on.
2. A young Ray Liotta could’ve played Robbie Robertson. I kid of course — it’s a documentary, so Robbie makes the perfect Robbie. But it’s worth wondering whether Scorcese’s experience with his lead subject stuck with him when casting Liotta for 1990’s “Goodfellas.”
3. Neil Young has the goofiest grin.
4. Joni Mitchell has the cutest grin.
5. The Band’s good-guy, anti-rock star reputation was for real. It always struck me that they never seemed to have a true leader, a front man through which the group’s energy was channeled. On the stage you see it: a conspicuous absence of ego in a profession that rewards, even demands self-promotion. More amazingly, this odd humility rubs off on their musical guests, some of whom bring significant star power to the gig. One after another, top guns like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters shuffle onto the stage with shy grins, do their song with The Band, and depart with little more than a wave. No bows. No preening. No adulation. In a look-at-me business, it’s refreshing.
6. That said, I quickly got the sense that Robertson was pulling the strings. He has a low-key manner about him, but on stage and backstage, he holds the center of gravity. It turns out I was onto something — the final credits list Robertson as producer.
7. Robertson is a much better live guitarist than I’d imagined based on Band records I’ve heard.
8. Levon Helm was one of the great singing drummers of rock ‘n’ roll. Much like the Eagles’ Don Henley, Helm could rightfully have held the title of lead singer had he not been stashed behind his kit. Not that I’m blaming The Band for doing so — his drum work brings pop to the group’s somewhat slumbering vibe. But his ability to turn a lazy growl to a plaintive wail and back is a unique bonus.
9. Scorcese did humanity a favor by committing the live rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to celluloid immortality. It reminded me of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” performance in “Woodstock,” in which Stephen Stills’ spellbinding guitar work made me completely forget that I’ve never much cared for that song. Likewise, I’ve always had mixed feelings about “Dixie” and its sympathetic view towards defeated Southern rebels, but the musical mastery on display — particularly the impassioned delivery from Southerner Helm — can’t be denied.
10. If there was any truth to what I’ve read of Marvin Gaye’s legendary insecurity, he had to be chewing his nails off hearing The Band reconstruct his “Don’t Do It” into a brassy, slow-groove masterpiece. This wasn’t the studio. This was one take, on stage, and they nailed it. That band was tight.
11. Van Morrison… thud. The first blip in the film arises in his inability to read the band’s wind-down sequence to “Caravan.” After some confused warbling at the mic, Van and The Band ultimately bring it home, but the moment was there, and the show loses some of its luster.
12. Bob Dylan… double thud. Remember what I said about lack of ego and preening? Check that. For a pair of songs, along with the ensemble concert finale, Dylan jealously projects himself in front of the entire venture, and for those few minutes, I genuinely lost interest in the film. Unfortunately for Scorcese, that’s how the show ends, leaving me to disappointedly scan back through the DVD for more congenial chapters. Theatergoers in 1978 didn’t have that option.
It’s interesting that a while back I blogged, somewhat carelessly, a list of revered musical acts I’m supposed to like but don’t, and wouldn’t you know it, leading off were none other than Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Band. “The Last Waltz” shows in part why the first two earned my scorn, but I now realize The Band, mixed bag that it is for me, is better than that.
I can objectively say The Band’s greatest asset is its musical breadth. It’s difficult to place the group into an identifiable style or genre, and the guest pairings in “The Last Waltz” hammer this point home. Ostensibly a rock ‘n’ roll outfit (the movie opens with a title card stating “This film should be played loud!”), The Band effortlessly slips into blues (with Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters), yet shows itself equally comfortable doing folk rock (with Neil Young for “Helpless”), jazz (“Coyote” with Joni Mitchell) and even its own gospel-tinged “The Weight” with the Staple Singers. It may be a chameleon act of sorts, but while most chameleon acts lack a core, that’s the not case with The Band. Their feet are firmly planted in American roots rock (interesting for a group of mostly Canadians), and their catalog constitutes a road map of 20th century American music — the country, blues, jazz, gospel pieces, and the rock ‘n’ roll they comprised. Perhaps it’s their versatility that causes problems for me, but that’s my problem. “The Last Waltz” gave The Band darling status in perpetuity, and through Scorcese’s cameras, we see a band quite deserving of it.