Martin Scorsese’s lived-in film adaptation of The Band’s legendary, star-studded farewell concert, cheekily titled “The Last Waltz”, is wholly at odds with the fundamental logic of a concert film, and it is all the more fascinating for it. At the eve of their dissolution, Scorsese chose to film the Band warts and all. He captures, more than anything, their own distance from the music they no longer want to call home. You can feel his love for the energy of raw music, yet he uses this energy to capture a fundamental malaise. His camera becomes their most knowing fan, giving the film a live, human physicality even as it deals in the deadened decay of men too tired to care anymore. The Rolling Stones’ documentary Gimme Shelter, itself fairly stunning, is haunting for the way a single tragedy intervened and permeated the celluloid of the whole film. Here, however, we come to understand something more deadening: the perpetual tension of joy and melancholy of life on the road, something a tragedy wouldn’t so much break-up as become one small portion of. On this tension between the lively and the embalmed, the film presents a fascinating vision of humanity and performance equaled by few films.
The film’s undeniable sense of loss is captured immediately when Scorsese opens on the group at the end of their concert, rather than the customary beginning, proclaiming “we’re going to do one more song for you tonight”. In fact, he goes so far as to break down the logic of performance, openly defining it based on its own temporality and the knowledge that it will soon end. After the opening performance, he cuts to an impoverished looking urban neighborhood, connecting and contrasting the band’s loving Americana to America in the ’70s, a poverty-stricken festering wound that hadn’t yet reconciled with itself. The tone is mournful. We begin to poke and prod at the music group, the concert genre, American history, and the nature of ’70s America as Scorsese’s lingering camera washes over us and refuses to enjoy itself when we expect it to do exactly that.
During this opening, we also have a waltz playing, the film eventually transitioning to people quite literally waltzing. The name of the film, and these opening moments, are evocative and defined by contrast: the contrast between classical European waltz music and the Band’s own earthy Americana (which of course had also forever connected Europe to America in Coppola’s The Godfather), between said waltz and shots of an Americana city scape beset by the poverty that so racked urban America in the ’70s (perhaps the most American thing of the decade), and the contrast between a certain passion for the last performance and the melancholy sense of loss for it being the “last” such one, all filtered through an opening shot of the band hanging around playing pool.
During the pool game, they’re away from the music, and tellingly the group seem the most alive and natural. It seems a sort of pre-performance joy, but its position relative to Scorsese opening with the final performance of the concert conveys something else – post-performance relief, a relief at having finished and moved on in a way we don’t want the band to. If they’re exhausted and find more joy in a simple game of pool than the music (when all rock docs pummel us over the head with the energy they put into capturing precisely that rock musicians care only about the “music” and nothing else) Scorsese is not only critiquing the idea of the rock image but capturing these men as real, lived-in humans. And we’re scared of that – scared of the idea that these are people who have an “off” switch and conform to human rules, people who are workaday strugglers like us, and above all people who may not enjoy what they do.
In this way, the documentary is structured to illuminate a contrast between the live, even communal (the Band have too many guests to count here) electric ecstatic energy of the performance as well as the harsher truth of what it means for a life of “another long day on the road” finally coming to an end. What emerges is a fascinating study of performance – song performances that might seem lively in another context become more tense and uneasy, and less passionate, all as a result of Scorsese’s framing. The same mystery pervades through Scorsese’s unique ability to capture the group speaking to each other on stage mid-performance; we can’t tell if they’re yelling at each other with laughter or because one of them messed up. The five members of The Band – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel – provide the words, but Scorsese’s formal structure is a messenger that delivers them like a punch to the gut.
The end of “The Band” as an entity is all the more tragic because the group always lived in the past, their music capturing an Americana long lost and only partially re-found. They strived to make the music timeless even as they breathed the knowledge that it could never truly last forever. The Band’s forte was the tension between electrifyingly reliving and reveling in America’s past and the melancholy knowledge that, after all, time was one truth that actively produced lies, turning all that lasted through it into something more closely resembling falsity than a reality. Thus, after the film’s final, most electrifyingly uplifting, performance, of “I Shall be Released” (with the oft-repeated chorus “any day now I shall be released”), Scorsese cuts to band member Robbie Robbertson unnervingly talking about leaving life on the road, for it had taken too many fellow travelers with it. And we understand that Scorsese has made a movie compatible with his subject’s career, a movie about the irreconcilable tension in the past and present, and the knowledge that even a band so dedicated to timeless music and living in the past must move on to the future.
So when Scorsese sends them off with a jaunty but melancholy final waltz-like performance, sans audience, with shadows of their selves awe-inspiringly drawn up on a curtain behind them, we wonder whether we’re hearing live music or a shadow of it from the past. As he moves his camera out to see them on a small stage surrounded by darkness, with the waltz that began the film now playing again, we realize he’s closing their storybook even as he lets it drift on into the future. He renders them not as living beings but as relics in a museum propped up for observation, playing to no one and giving one last never-ending bow as they head off into the distance. They will live on – their music will last, and even the museum-like imagery implies a survival throughout history, the group now part of the well-trodden past they so loved to depict. But, while we use “living on” optimistically, it implies its own kind of dying.