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Documentary Classics: “The Last Waltz” is a Perfectly Overproduced Concert Film of Its Time

Documentary Classics: "The Last Waltz" is a Perfectly Overproduced Concert Film of Its Time

Back in February I got in a Twitter argument with another film critic while defending “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” This person stated that if I (or anyone else) can’t tell the difference between “Never Say Never” and “The Last Waltz,” I am unfit to write. I replied that I can tell the difference, but the truth was I had never seen “Waltz” and couldn’t genuinely claim more than a basic understanding of what he was getting at. Now that I’ve finally watched the 1978 concert film, which is considered by many to be one of the best docs of its kind, I can agree to some very clear distinctions, but mostly in their purpose. For one thing, the Bieber movie is not really a concert film. It also consists of a more straightforward narrative. There is a certain kinship between the two docs, though, and that’s that they are both overproduced records of their time.

“Waltz” documents the final 1976 concert of The Band and features, on stage, such guest stars as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Ringo Starr. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film represents a kind of closing night for the era of rock and roll that these artists came out of. It’s appropriate that the filmmaker went from working on “Woodstock” to orchestrating this, because it’s almost its antithesis. The mid-70s was a time of overproduced music, so it makes sense for a concert film to arise out of the period with as much luster as this one does. It’s not a surprise to learn most of the instruments were overdubbed with studio-recorded performances for utmost perfection, or that an equivalent of digitally removing flaws (rotoscoping) was also involved.

That latter special effect was to remove evidence of cocaine in Young’s nose, which is too bad since the film could have been an even more blatant document of its time, when coke widely replaced marijuana as the drug of choice. But such frivolous spending — the erasure was apparently quite an expense (The Band’s Robbie Robertson, who also produced the movie, calls it “the most expensive cocaine I ever bought”) — also fits the whole shebang. With production design from Oscar winner Boris Leven (“West Side Story”) and exquisite 35mm camera work from such great cinematographers as Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), László Kovács (“Easy Rider”), David Myers (“THX 1138”) and primary DP Michael Chapman (“Raging Bull”), “Waltz” spared little in employing the best film talent for the occasion. And Scorsese’s pre-production planning, his scripting of lighting cues assigned to specific lyrics, his storyboarding of shots based on full foreknowledge of the set list, makes the film sound like the most controlled documentary since “Triumph of the Will.”

Of course, concerts themselves had been heavily planned before The Band (along with Scorsese and promoter Bill Graham) arranged this all-star farewell. We’d seen much of that behind-the-scenes planning, for instance, in films like “Gimme Shelter,” which is an interesting doc to compare with “Waltz,” which avoids revealing the making-of stuff as much as a narrative Hollywood film hides its lights and microphones. The two works tend to compete for the top slot on lists of best concert films of all time, yet they’re difficult to quantify in this way. Scorsese’s doc is as characteristic of calculated mastery as the Maysles brothers’ Rolling Stones film is characteristic of flexibility and the unexpected. “Shelter” signifies an accidental death of an era, while “Waltz” is the subsequent, well-arranged funeral.

This film is not entirely without flukes and foibles, some regarding the concert and some regarding the concert film. Scorsese acknowledged that any live event is impossible to have total command over (unless you’re Leni Riefenstahl and working for Hitler and Goebbels, that is). But the accidents with “Waltz,” at least those we see, are of a happy sort. That only one camera was rolling during the Muddy Waters number, for example, results in a welcome moment of change in the aesthetic, where we get to focus more intently on a godfather of the music deserving of such a separate and singular spotlighting perspective. How many true improvisations do we really witness, however, other than maybe Van Morrison kicking about like a purple Elvis wannabe in a bedazzled suit that looks a size or two too small? It’s fitting that the jam sessions from the concert didn’t make it into the film. There was probably too much freedom happening for Scorsese to handle.

This film hardly depicts what I expect and prefer with a live show, which is a looser, casual performance with chance impulses. I don’t always feel as though I’m hearing live music here, which is likely due to the overdubbing and tweaking of the soundtrack, and it’s not always easy to immediately tell when in “Waltz” you’re actually watching a live performance or one of a few numbers filmed on a sound stage after the event. The first time I watched the film I did so blindly, without knowledge of the artificial moments and thought The Band’s playing of “The Weight” was merely filmed without audience shots or enough back lighting to see much of the Winterland Ballroom at all. As music video inserts they’re great, but do they really belong in a concert film? In this one they do, for the same reason they wouldn’t make sense in something like “Woodstock.” That doc provides an experience while this presents a production.

Because “Waltz” opens with a scene of Robertson shooting pool, I later thought of an analogy between the game and this film. In fact, it relates in particular to Scorsese’s “The Color of Money,” which features a soundtrack produced by Robertson and, more importantly, so many montages of simple and clearly set-up pocket shots. Actually, it’s the same for many Scorsese films, choreographed and constructed to a T. There’s very little experience of a real and fluid situation, only trickery and manufactured movement (physical and emotional). For a certain effect, in fiction or non, this kind of careful planning and preparation affords a filmmaker a lot in the way of getting what he wants, and the audience is awarded with a meticulous show. And the fact that this film comes across as even more blocked, rehearsed and engineered than it actually was is a grand achievement for any sort of perfectionist — musical, cinematic or otherwise.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if “Waltz” offers the reality of what occurred that Thanksgiving in 1976, no more than it matters if “Never Say Never” displays the genuine nature of Justin Bieber. Yet if your idea of a great concert film is one that makes you feel like you were actually there, Scorsese’s film is possibly less of worth to you than the more recent doc, and not just because of the way 3D places you in the scene more perceptibly. I’m not saying great concert films need provide you with a sense of presence. And classic concert films, like classic rock albums, ought to be able to be appreciated regardless of taste in music. I’m not particularly a fan of either The Band or Bieber, yet I can respect them each for what they do courtesy of their respective films. Having finally seen “Waltz,” I’m even more conscious of how much more of an artistic and well-crafted achievement it is than “Never Say Never,” but I’ll also stand by my defense of the new film and go so far as to say the Bieber doc could wind up in a future Documentary Classics column way down the line.

As a final note, I must supply the reason it took me so long to give “Waltz” a chance, and it’s a pretty lame one: I’ve always been prejudiced against music docs, concert films included, out of personal boredom with most live music. I’m not even certain I’ve sat through all of “Woodstock,” “Jazz on a Summer’s Day” or many other classic rock docs as a result. I was indeed restless during some of the numbers in this film (as well as many of the trivial anecdote segments) and honestly will likely never watch it again. But it would have been a shame to ignore it forever and I think I will start to give more concert films a shot, even if the artists are not my cup of tea. Feel free to suggest the next one.

Anyway, it worked out perfectly that it took me so long to see this film and it also took me so long to get a Blu-ray player, because the two are as perfect together as the members of The Band were with each other (musically, if not ultimately personally). It’s obvious why “Waltz” was one of the very first Blu-rays ever released, in fact. I don’t know that I needed to see every individual hair on Morrison’s chest, but as long as you’re going to watch something with as much thought and detail put into it as Robertson and Scorsese put into this, you must see it as clear and perfectly as is technologically possible. That should be the demand at the start rather than the instruction that “this film should be played loud!”

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