Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978)

After the disappointing reception of 1977’s improvised musical, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, director Martin Scorsese retreated from the narrative realm for a couple years.  It was something of a crucible for his burgeoning career, and an escalating cocaine addiction threatened to derail everything he had built.  However, Scorsese’s recuperation period was by no means a dormant one.  He embarked on a series of documentaries, the first being 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ—a concert film chronicling The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.  Scorsese became involved through Jonathan T. Taplin, a manager for The Band who had previously produced 1973’s MEAN STREETS.  Rock and roll has played an integral role throughout Scorsese’s career, and though he would go on to make several more concert documentaries as the years went on, THE LAST WALTZ is generally considered his finest work in the arena. 

THE LAST WALTZ is relatively straightforward, featuring The Band performing their hits in full, joined by a veritable who’s who of 1970’s rock like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, and Muddy Waters.  Scorsese also peppers interview footage throughout of the film in which he appears onscreen talking to members of The Band about their experiences with the group, focusing particularly on Robbie Robertson.  The cinema-verite feel of the film’s presentation is complemented by a few instances of staged performance, shot a few days later in a nearby soundstage.  To accomplish a multi-camera shooting scenario while capturing artful footage, Scorsese recruits his TAXI DRIVER (1976) cinematographer Michael Chapman, who leads a small team of fellow venerated cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. 

The mid-to-late 1970’s were something of a “rock star” period for Scorsese—a time when his national profile soared as a director.  His success was offset by the hazards of fame and fortune, the most dangerous of which was his fondness for cocaine (which no doubt the green rooms backstage were awash in).  In a way, Scorsese was the perfect guy to chronicle this event, further solidifying his artistic association with and importance to rock and roll music.  A concert film might not provide a plethora of opportunities for artistic indulgence, but Scorsese still manages to make his mark known by referencing his cultural heritage in the form of an Italian waltz during the opening credits, as well as continuing his examination of urban street life by showing the fans waiting in line for the concert. 

THE LAST WALTZ may be a minor work within Scorsese’s filmography, but it was formative in his approach to music documentaries in the future.  Even today, the film is still considered as one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time.  For Scorsese personally, it would be a major development in his career in that his relationship with Robbie Robertson would result in him becoming a key music producer for Scorsese’s later works.

THE LAST WALTZ is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via MGM.

Credits:

Produced by: Robbie Robertson, Jon T. Taplin

Written by: Mardik Martin (treatment)

Director of Photography: Michael Chapman

Production Designer: Boris Leven

Edited by: Jan Roblee, Yev-Bun-Yee