The Medicine Show Packs Up

The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorsese at the Sack Charles, Boston

THE ROAD was our school, it was our survival... but you can push your luck too far. The road has taken some of the great ones--Hank Williams, Janis, Otis Redding... We've been playing on the road for 16 years..."

The speaker is not a broken-down banjo-picker from somewhere in the South who has played one roadhouse too many. He is one of rock's most successful and respected figures, Robbie Robertson of The Band, explaining in his own slightly hackneyed way the group's decision last year to stop touring. The Band--Robertson (lead guitar and covals), Rich Danko (bass and vocals), Levon Helm (drums and vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Richard Manuel (piano and vocals)--did what few groups, successful or struggling, have ever managed to do: they quit while they were still ahead.

In the music business--as in other performing arts and athletics--there seems to be an over-whelming desire to continue, defying time, that tempts all but the most self-controlled of men. The smart ones know that the deck is stacked against them; no matter how great they are, the years will catch up. A good example of someone who failed to quit soon enough was Willie Mays, who hung on until the age of 42. By that time the former star had become a diminished figure.

For musicians the urge to keep going, to remain in the spotlight, must be even stronger than it is for the athletes. In sports someone will eventually beat you--even Muhammad Ali learned that. But in music you can go on as long as you are able to play or sing. All you have to do is remain popular. The Band's decision to hang it up, at least to hang it up in public, seems even more laudable. The group may well have been sick of the road, as Robertson indicated, but it isn't easy to give up your bread and butter.

A fair argument can be made that The Band ranks among the finest rock-and-roll groups ever formed. Although they have not been overly prolific, they produced several outstanding studio albums--Music From Big Pink and The Band most notably--skeptics need only look at the almost unheard-of critical acclaim that welcomed those albums and much of their later work. The Band had it all--five immensely talented musicians and a sound that blended many of the mongrel elements that form the backbone of rock, and despite some personal problems (Danko was so strung out for two years, for example, that he got out of bed as seldom as possible) a devotion to excellence. Given these factors and the group's immense popularity, (The Band's last concert, a gala Thanksgiving Day bash, was attended by 500 people at San Francisco's Winterland last year) this much-heralded "Last Waltz" gig would make a great concert film, right?

Almost.

The Last Waltz has quite a few things going for it. It features not only The Band but a parade of rock stars the likes of which might only be found at an L.A. cabaret on a good night. With all that talent--most notably Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and Neil Young--one might assume that it would take a king-hell bummer on the level of an indoor altamont to spoil this film. There is certainly no arguing over the quality of music in the film. Director Martin Scorsese's (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) film is definitely worth seeing at least once, but somehow The Last Waltz comes up short. It is just a touch too self-conscious, a little bit too perfect in its staging and supposed spontaneity to be completely enjoyable.

TECHNICALLY, The Last Waltz is by and large superb. Scorsese is one of the most talented directors to come along in several years, and here he tried his hand at something entirely new. The concert footage is never boring; Scorsese carefully selects his shots and sequences so that the same pattern is rarely repeated. We are spared the usual audience shots and moronic neo-groovy short interviews with way-out folks in the stands. Scorsese's emphasis decidedly falls on the music, to the benefit of the final product.

Inserted into the concert footage are a series of interviews Scorsese conducted with 'The Band at their plush retreat, and while these sequences are prone to low-key self-congratulation, the interviews are, for the most part, interesting, amusing, and somehow tied to the following number. The personalities of The Band's members come into focus--Levon Helm, the Southern gentleman who grins and shies away from saying too much about the women on the road; Danko cracking jokes and showing off the house; and Robertson, the seasoned storyteller, recounting the history of the group.

The transitions between conversation and performance mask perhaps the only consistent structural flaw in the film. In one sequence Robertson tells a story about an old harmonica player he met with Helm years ago, then Scorsese cuts to Paul Butterfield wailing away on his harmonica. Helm speaks of the great Southern blues men-and presto, we see Muddy Waters (whose rendition of "Mannish Boy" is one of the high points of the film). The idea is a good one, but its execution is a little too smooth, too obvious.

Scorsese, in his emphasis on the music, compensates for this error in judgment. Most of the film lets the musicians do what they do best. Several outstanding performances--simply photographed and reproduced with beautiful sound quality-make it memorable. Among the better songs are Dylan's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," Ronnie Hawkins' "Who Do You Love," and an electrifying rendition of Van Morrison's "Caravan." The Band is onstage the whole time, backing up each performer, and in the better numbers the group seems inordinately happy, particularly Robertson and Helm.

Then there are the solo numbers by The Band. They run through the staple numbers in their concert repertoire, including "Stage Fright," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (perhaps the best number in the film), "The Weight" and other standbys. The Band is so consistent that these songs always sound great, but there is a slight difference between their 1977 renditions and the sound of their 1974 "Before the Flood" tour with Dylan. Four years ago, Garth Hudson's wailing organ played a more central role in The Last Waltz. Robertson's lead guitar dominates most of the songs. Either way, the sound is worth the price of admission.

STILL, THE LAST WALTZ suffers from conditions endemic to big-time rock and roll. The American music industry has grown to monstrous proportions, so much so that much of its fabled opulence has become a narcissistic orgy, celebrating the joys of popularity and immense wealth. The vulturistic entrepreneurs, represented in an earlier era by the smarmy Dick Clark, have been succeeded by the slicker, if equally self-inflating and profit-minded Don Kirshner types. Had The Last Waltz somehow fallen into the hands of such a producer, the movie would have been a shlocky disaster regardless of the music.

But this film is an in-house job, produced by Robbie Robertson himself. While Robertson respects some boundaries of taste and discretion, the film bears the entirely self-centered stamp that characterizes the music business. If this taint is unavoidable, The Last Waltz keeps it to a palatable minimum. Nonetheless the self-consciousness of the whole effort continually strikes a negative chord. There is nothing as cheaply obvious as a singer directing his eyes and gestures solely to the camera and ignoring the audience. The atmosphere of the film is suffused with an inescapable sense of heady profiteering--remember, boys, this one's a wrap, and don't forget about the fat triple-album that we'll release along with a massive publicity campaign the week the film opens...

The Last Waltz has some minor flaws other than this somewhat self-indulgent tone. The opening and closing scenes feature a schmaltzy waltz, played by The Band. The music is reminiscent of a player piano in an Old Western saloon. The visual accompaniments--particularly the closing shots of The Band, alone on a strangely-lit stage, playing the insipid theme--attempt to evoke a feeling of free-floating nostalgia. This final scene adds an untoward note of solemnity to the affair; Scorsese would have been better off closing with the final number of the concert, the full-company rendition of "I Shall Be Released." The desired arty effect appears both pretentious and rather silly. In another inexplicable scene, The Band plays a pretty song with EmmyLou Harris, but it is not part of the Winterland concert. Rather, it takes place in a studio, attended only by the film crew and sound technicians. For some unknown reason this nice but incongruous scene is jammed between interview footage and part of the real concert. Another Scorsese transition down the drain.

For all its narcissism and petty flaws, however, The Last Waltz is a respectable film. One might argue that with subject material of that calibre, no one could go wrong. The film is far from perfect, but it pays a solid tribute to the timely end of The Band's spectacular career.