The death of Levon Helm, the drummer and sometime vocalist for the seminal roots-rock group the Band, might seem a strange occasion for watching The Last Waltz. Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film, which documents the Band’s farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco with an all-star lineup of guests including Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Neil Young, is routinely hailed as one of the greatest concert movies of all time, but Helm himself despised it.
In his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire, Helm details his dissatisfaction with The Last Waltz: Scorsese, he claims, focused on and exalted Robbie Robertson, the Band’s songwriter and frequent frontman, to the near exclusion of everyone else in the group. Helm goes on to mock Scorsese’s “long, loving close-ups” of Robertson’s “heavily made-up face” and “expensive haircut.” “Today people tell me all the time they love The Last Waltz,” Helm writes. “I try to thank them politely and usually refrain from mentioning that for me it was a real scandal.”
Yesterday, as the sad news of Helm’s death came over the wire, I made up my mind to watch The Last Waltz for the first time. I wanted a chance to see Helm play drums and sing (despite his protestations about being sidelined, he’s front and center for several of the film’s key performances) and to try to understand what it was about this now-legendary rock document that Helm found so contemptible. The impression I came away with was double-edged: I don’t really get why The Last Waltz is lionized as an example of a great concert film, but it’s utterly fascinating as a snapshot of a moment in music history, and as a showcase for some remarkable individual performances. (No movie that includes Van Morrison doing high kicks in a spangled maroon leisure suit can be all bad.)
The Last Waltz certainly has to be among the best-looking concert movies of all time. With multiple 35 mm cameras operated by some of the best D.P.s in the business (the credits name Vilmos Zsigmond, Laszlo Kovacs, and Michael Chapman, among others), an elaborately designed lighting system including three giant onstage chandeliers, and a set borrowed from the San Francisco Opera’s production of La Traviata, Scorsese creates a warm, homey atmosphere on-screen, as if the audience were being invited to listen to the Band create music at Big Pink, the sprawling house near Woodstock where they wrote and recorded many of their best-known songs. Watching this film, you realize how visually flat most movies about live music are. Lighting that’s designed for the stage tends to look stark and unflattering on-screen, with the depths of the image obscured and the performers washed out by harsh colored spotlights. The come-into-our-living-room feel that Scorsese’s cinematic staging creates is of a piece with the vibe of the Band’s best music: folksy, homey, bohemian, a little shaggy around the edges.
But The Last Waltz’s very coziness has something airless about it. Scorsese’s tight focus on what’s happening within the frame of the proscenium stage seems to exclude the presence of the live audience. At best, the people who attended the concert that Thanksgiving night in 1976 (for the then-scandalous ticket price of $25, more than triple the going rate at the time) are reduced to what we movie viewers are: appreciative but nonparticipatory spectators. When you compare this band-to-audience chemistry with the electric interplay between musicians and crowd in the chilling Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter or the buoyant Flaming Lips concert film The Fearless Freaks, The Last Waltz starts to look a little self-congratulatory and smug.
That said, once I had made my peace with the slight fustiness of The Last Waltz, I started to get into it as a document of a single musical performance. There are some powerful moments, many of the best involving Helm, whose raspy Arkansas drawl and bluesy, inventive phrasing can make the Band’s other vocalists—Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel—sound like enthusiastic amateurs around a campfire. Helm specialized in storytelling songs, the kind that sketch out not just situations but full-blown characters. “Virgil Kane is my name/And I served on the Danville train …” begins the Civil War story ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which Helm nails in a passionate rendition early in the film, backed by a tight horn section. That song, along with Helm’s delivery of the Band’s signature anthem “The Weight,” with glorious backing by Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers, are the best song-by-song arguments for watching the movie.
Levon Helm also provides what may be the best interview moment in The Last Waltz, even though (or precisely because) he was the most reluctant of the bandmembers to be interviewed. In some group scenes he comes off as downright hostile, and it’s in Helm’s evident discomfort with the whole documentary project that the viewer can glimpse some of the tensions that were driving the Band to split.
But in a rare unguarded moment in a bar with Scorsese, the clack of pool cues audible in the background, Helm smokes a cigarette as he describes, in an unhurried Delta drawl that’s the precise opposite of Scorsese’s rapid-fire New York patter, the confluence of American music styles in the region of the country he hails from. He sounds shyly prideful as he enumerates the musical giants that have come from the Delta—Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley—and remembers a local show from his childhood called the Midnight Ramble that would include traveling acts like “Walcott’s Rabbit’s-Foot Minstrels.” (Late in his life, the Midnight Ramble would be the name of the combination jam session and musical salon Helm hosted for many years in his Woodstock barn.) “Bluegrass or country music, if it comes down to that area and mixes with the rhythm, and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music,” Helms explains in that soft, scratchy-briar voice that gave every song he sang the time-worn sound of an American traditional. Scorsese, off-screen, wonders: “What’s it called then?” With a surprised laugh and a look that says, ‘isn’t it obvious, man?,’ Helms answers, “Rock and roll.”