Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Last Waltz


If there has ever been a better concert movie, it’s not coming to mind. (Woodstock is not a concert movie.) The farewell performance by The Band and friends like Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, and Muddy Waters took place in Winterland (sadly, demolished in 1985), in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. I went to a few concerts in that big old barn. It would have been great if I had been able to be there for this one, but alas …

Not only is the music some of the best of my generation, but this is a great technical achievement as well. These days it would be dead easy. Just salt the stage with 50 or 60 hi-def cameras the size of candy bars, and twice that number of microphones. Record it all digitally, and tinker with it endlessly. Augment it, auto-tune it, supplement it, add to it, subtract from it, layer it, phil-spector the fuck out of it until you arrive at the doctored-to-death shit that passes for music these days.

Back then, shooting on 35MM film, it all had to be planned out like a military campaign. Cameras can’t shoot indefinitely, you have to change the film magazine after a set number of minutes, and that can be quite short. Martin Scorsese had seven cameras, which sounds like a lot, but can be way too few to catch everything you want from every angle you want. And if the camera you had expected to be focused on Muddy Waters’ face runs out of film or if any of them malfunction … well, you don’t get a second take. I can imagine everyone heaved a big sigh of relief when it was all in the can.

About the only discouraging word I’ve ever heard about this film is from Levon Helm, who didn’t think he and the rest of The Band got enough screen time, that it was turned into the Robbie Robertson Show. He’s probably got a point, but it didn’t matter to me. I was just digging it.