If Martin Scorsese wished to show off his connection with the greatest musicians of a generation, then The Last Waltz serves him well. Bob Dylan, The Band, Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond litter the casting for this documentary on one final tour for the immensely talented group, The Band. Their work as artists buoying the finest works of Dylan and their own, independent releases, are some of the most influential, integral albums to have ever released. Their impact, both short term and long, is monumental. That much is captured within The Last Waltz, not just through smart direction from Scorsese but an understanding of what made their music so powerful, and why it lasts over forty years later.
Good chunks of the running time are straight concert footage. Audiences are blessed with a great flurry and a large collection of fine performances. Some of The Band’s greatest works are featured, cut suddenly between interviews with the men themselves. It Makes No Difference and the live performance that comes from this work from Scorsese is magnificent. All the live recordings make a difference because those little pockets of brief, seemingly random conversation are backed by the meaning of the lyrics and the music. Why ask The Band these questions and hear their answers when they have already penned them on their albums? Scorsese realises that, and much of The Last Waltz concerns itself with fine performances and finer lyrical ruminations.
That is the best blend of all. As Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton share the stage with this talented ensemble, The Last Waltz comes to life. Not through the characters on the stage or the attitudes they presented, but the music they created and the brilliance behind it. They are the final remnants of a musical age like no other. All audiences can do, now, is look back with venomous jealousy for those in the audience and those behind the camera. For they were the witnesses to that final dance, that last waltz. A shame it may be to never see it again, but Scorsese has crafted an integral piece of his filmography and a vital piece of history is preserved with love and passion for a group that offered essential art to generation after generation.
What can the new generation learn from The Band, though? That musicianship should be founded on the great times that are to be had? It doesn’t ring true anymore. The streamlined and marketed styling of the modern music industry is a sad shame, but an inevitable change and a necessary one. The parties and the loose ends to short-lived lives were not healthy, but it did provide some fantastic music and some infamous moments for the greats of the 20th century. Joni Mitchell commanding the stage, Robbie Robertson’s powerhouse lyrical performances and everything around these stunning artists is a breath-taking treat for the eyes and ears. Scorsese has crafted a fine documentary, but it is the slide into concert film that stops the real detail coming through. Should we even care when the music is this good?