If ever a film was made for the "pure picture and sound quality, true to the original source master" that Blu-ray technology purports to deliver, it's Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz." With uncompressed PCM audio providing fantastic six-channel sound and the video of this larger-than-life last performance by The Band sprawling across the whole of your widescreen television—with no horizontal bars, so clear in some shots that you can see the individual hairs on the performers' backlit faces—it's a real treat to watch. Except for an annoying hiccup during "Mannish Boy," a song the group does with Muddy Waters, you almost feel like you're there.
I was in college when The Band launched its distinctive folk-rock sound, and I played their brown-cover debut album ("The Band") as much as any other vinyl. It would easily make my list of top-10 albums. There were only a dozen songs, but each one defied you to compare it to anything else you ever heard. At a time when all of rock music seemed to be funneling down to four basic instruments and clearly defined roles for musicians, The Band went beyond the sound of guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums. They were a multi-talented bunch who played a number of instruments and did different things on different songs. On that first album, classically trained Garth Hudson played the accordion, organ, piano, clavinette, slide trumpet, and soprano, tenor, and baritone saxes. Richard Manuel played piano, drums, baritone-sax and mouth harp, while handling some of the vocals. Levon Helm, who also did vocals, was mostly a percussionist, but he stepped away from the drums to play mandolin and guitar. Rick Danko handled the bass, but he also sang and played violin and trombone. And the group's leader, Jaime Robbie Robertson, didn't just wail on vocals and lead guitar. He was their principal songwriter and also took care of the engineering chores in the recording sessions.
As a fan of that album, I wish that more than two songs—"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek"—made it into the film. But Scorsese had to edit a concert that ran SIX hours and ended at 2:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving, 1976. It was a bona fide "happening," with fans who attended the "The Last Waltz" eating dinner in the Winterland Ballroom and then waltzing half the night away. The other half, of course, would be filled by The Band's final concert—though it turned out to be much more than that.
After playing dives and dancehalls for their first eight years on the road and working arenas and larger venues another eight years, The Band was ready to hang it up. But they wanted to go out with closure, performing for one last time at Winterland in San Francisco, where they first performed. The idea started small, Robertson says, but quickly snowballed into something that's now considered a major rock event—not quite on the order of Woodstock, but pretty darned huge. First they wanted to invite Ronnie Hawkins to sit in with them, because Robbie started playing with Hawkins when he was just 16, and he and fellow Band members backed up the rockabilly singer as "The Hawks" from 1959-1963. But if they invited Hawkins because he was instrumental to their careers, then they'd have to ask Bob Dylan as well. The Band toured with Dylan on his 1965-66 World Tour and recorded the Basement Tapes with him. But they also had a soft spot for the blues, having volunteered to be Sonny Boy Williamson's backup band in 1965 (which never happened, because Williamson died), so inviting Muddy Waters seemed essential. But they got to thinking how many different styles of music and performers influenced them, and so the list of "special guests" who would perform at this last concert really ballooned. Here's who finally appears onstage with them in the film:
—Ronnie Hawkins (rockabilly), who joins The Band for a rousing rendition of "Who Do You Love," one of his signature road songs.
—Dr. John (swamp boogie/funk), who turns in a dazzling performance of "Such a Night" with the boys.
—Neil Young (country rock), who was reportedly on cocaine but wows the audience as he performs "Helpless" with the group.
—The Staples (gospel), who, in a segment recorded on a soundstage that was added to the film, perform "The Weight" with The Band.
—Neil Diamond (Tin Pan Alley) actually seems to fit in with this crowd as he sings "Dry Your Eyes."
—Joni Mitchell (folk) sings "Coyote" with The Band.
—Paul Butterfield (urban blues) joins the group on "Mystery Train."
—Muddy Waters (Mississippi Delta blues) rocks the audience with "Mannish Boy."
—Eric Clapton (hard rock) and the boys go "Further Up On the Road."
—Emmylou Harris (country) appears in another separately recorded session that was spliced in, a performance of "Evangeline" with the group.
—Van Morrison (rock) gets down on "Caravan."
—Bob Dylan (folk/folk rock) steps onstage in his white hat to play "Forever Young" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down."
—Ringo Starr and Ron Wood (pop rock) join everybody onstage for a wailing rendition of "I Shall Be Released."
In between, we see The Band performing "Don't Do It," "Theme from The Last Waltz," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Shape I'm In," "It Makes No difference," "Stagefright," "Old Time Religion," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Genetic Method/Chest Fever," and "Ophelia," and when all the musicians take a break San Francisco poets Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti perform "Intro to the Canterbury Tales" and "Loud Prayer."
"The Last Waltz" has been called a rock documentary, but it really isn't, except in the purest sense of the word. This was a huge musical event which got people onstage who would never perform together again. And technically speaking, Scorsese did document it on film, using 35mm stock and shooting in Panavision. But we really don't get any history of The Band to speak of, and we don't get any of the background and footage that you usually see spliced together to make a documentary. Yet "The Last Waltz" isn't a concert video either. It's something more. Scorsese intercuts interviews he conducted with Band members into the film, and does the same with footage of the area surrounding Winterland. Mostly, the music takes center stage, and music is what's really being documented here. Scorsese begins the film with the last song of the evening, then goes back to the beginning of the concert and follows a chronological structure for the rest of the film. There's nothing fancy, and you won't see any of the typical WOO! Shots of audience members going ape over the music. It's a classy affair with theatrical set design and three grand chandeliers hanging over the musicians heads like a Greek chorus of exclamation points.
The editing itself is so smooth that you'd never know you were only seeing a fraction of the concert unless you had seen it in person or heard Robertson talk on the commentary about how long the evening turned out to be. And while there are multiple cameras, they don't jump awkwardly all over the place. Transitions are smooth, and the stage lighting doesn't seem to have posed much of a problem for Scorsese. With footlights that beamed a skin-tone glow up at the performers, this solid-gold performance gets a harvest gold (sorry, Neil, it seemed appropriate) cast to it.
"We were pumped," Robertson says. "It was like going after the heavyweight championship of the world." And it's contagious. All of the performers are so jazzed that they perform as if it were their last time as well. The interviews add just enough texture to throw interesting shadows on the performers as they take the stage for the final concert. And that's about as understated as anything Scorsese has done.
Video: Blu-ray transfers are true to the original source master. Thankfully, the master for "The Last Waltz" was in pretty good shape. It's mastered in High Definition, and while there's some graininess, for the most part the picture is extremely clear and well-delineated, with natural-looking and fairly well-saturated colors. As I said earlier, there are shots where you can actually see wisps of hair backlit as the musicians perform. That's when you realize you're watching the concert from the Blu-ray section. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which means it stretches across the entire 16x9 screen, with no horizontal bars. I can't say that it's the absolute sharpest picture I've seen on Blu-ray, but "The Last Waltz" was one of the most enjoyable Blu-ray discs I've watched.
Audio: Maybe the reason for all that elation is the sound quality. That uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound is great, especially if you follow the onscreen instructions that "This Film Should Be Played Loud." Turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and pop the cork on a bottle of wine and you could be right there in Winterland, still catching your breath from all that dancing. There's a fullness and richness of sound that reinforces that this film was all about the music. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Thai.
Extras: The SD version featured a commentary by Scorsese and Robertson, and this one has presumably the same commentary, with each men's remarks edited into the commentary track because they obviously weren't in the same room together. It's a decent-enough commentary, which gives you the kind of background you don't get from the film itself. One of the more interesting anecdotes comes from Robertson, who says that he had his guitar bronzed for the occasion but had to switch instruments in mid-concert because he hadn't counted on the bronzing adding 10 pounds or more to the guitar's weight. There's some good stuff here for fans, and the short bonus feature, "Revisiting The Last Waltz is also pretty standard but pretty decent in terms of the ground it covers.
Bottom Line: Part rock video and part documentary, "The Last Waltz" is a legitimate music-world happening that puts more stars in one spot than a Van Gogh painting. It's The Band's private Woodstock, and this Blu-ray release makes it all the more memorable.