Play This Film Loud: Looking Back On ‘The Last Waltz’< < Back to
Some films should be played loud, and The Last Waltz, The Band’s final live performance, cinematized by none other than legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese – is most definitely one of those.
The likes of Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, The Staple Singers, Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Wood and many more came together for the iconic performance, which was filmed in the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day 1976. Keeping in theme with the holiday, during the event over 5,000 people were served a traditional turkey dinner before settling in to enjoy what would become one of the most beloved concerts of the last century.
The Last Waltz will be broadcast on WOUB-TV on Dec. 2 at 8:30 p.m. In preparation for the screening of the classic film, WOUB’s Emily Votaw spoke to a number of music-centric folks about the importance of that night in San Francisco some 40 years ago.
Peacock is the executive director of Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, OH, a non-profit arts organization that not only runs a series of programs to support the arts in Southeast Ohio, but also attracts some of the most prominent names in pop culture to the area for unique, intimate shows at the historic opera house.
I’m a huge Neil Young fan, so that’s one way in which the film really appeals to me. The concert happened way before I was old enough to get it – I probably first watched it 20 years after it first took place. But that time period, the mid-70s, was sort of the end of a wreckless and innocent time period for the music industry. Everything is different now in terms of the music industry – everything is very calculated. Not that the film isn’t edited and calculated in it’s own way – but I don’t think that you could really replicate what they did back then with some of the biggest names in music now.
And even with events like ‘old-chella’ (Desert Trip, a music festival featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney Bob Dylan that took place earlier this year in Indio, CA was playfully christened “Coachella for old people/Old-chella’ by fans and the media) you might have a bunch of superstars together on stage, but it’ll be very expensive and those musicians aren’t really in their prime anymore. “The Last Waltz” didn’t feel or look like a huge commercial enterprise; it just looked like The Band was calling it quits and they invited all these great musicians to perform with them, and they did; just out of mutual respect. I’m sure they all got paid, too, but it just doesn’t feel like the concert was ultimately about the all mighty dollar.
Ashworth is an associate professor at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies. He has over two decades of music production experience, working with artists such as Sublime, Dokken, Pennywise and many others.
The Last Waltz, is, in fact, one of the great rock ‘n’ roll films – but my feelings on it were later shaded by reading Levon Helm’s biography, where he discusses that he felt the band at large was mistreatment by the band’s main songwriter, Robbie Robertson. He felt that Robertson and Scorsese worked together to edit the film in such a way that Robertson appeared to be the ringleader. I still feel like it’s great document of the era in which it was filmed, although my enthusiasm about it has been muted by things that I found out later.
It’s a great movie, although there are some troubling aspects to it. It represents one of the great eras of music – the blazing zenith of the ’70s music scene. At the time, rock stars and the singer songwriters were the movie stars of the day – movies weren’t the multi-billion dollar industry that they are now. That’s when being a rockstar really meant something. To have all those artists together at one time; it’s such a snapshot in time of that era and the heights to which popular music had grown in the United States.
Groce is a singer-songwriter and the longtime host and artistic director of the internationally distributed “Mountain Stage,” a two hour long live music program produced by West Virginia Public Radio and distributed by National Public Radio.
Funnily enough, I just saw Bob Dylan last night in Charleston. He’s a central figure in that movie; and the movie itself is kind of a symbol for what Mountain Stage is. The Band is my favorite band of the ’60s and ’70s, and maybe my personal favorite band of all time; and the music that they made is still kind of the heart and soul of the kind of music that Mountain Stage is all about. Many of the performers from The Last Waltz have appeared on Mountain Stage; The Band minus Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel — because he had passed away by then, but The Band itself in it’s later form, with Levon and Garth Hudson and Rick Danko and others, they’ve played Mountain Stage twice. Mavis Staples, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John — many of the people who are featured in the film have played Mountain Stage.
The first time I saw the film was in a special screening put on by the studio that produced the film. In 1978 I was working on a record that Garth Hudson played on, and he invited me to the screening. When I first saw the movie, I was just 30 years old, and it really left me in a state of awe of all of the musicians who took part in the concert. I’ve only seen it once or twice since then; and only on a television sized screen; but the first time I saw it, it really left a big impression on me. The biggest thing about it, to me, is the music that it represents. A combination of roots and folk and country and blues and north and south and all of these things.
All of the artists involved with the movie had their own, unique cultural significance. Just think about all the performers we have now who never would have started performing if there hadn’t been a Bob Dylan or a Van Morrison; their voices are unique, and you can like them or not like them but they certainly are extremely strong flavors. The same with The Band itself — which was extremely important in influencing a lot of young people to meld rock ‘n’ roll with folk and elements of blues and country.
Burge is a West Virginia-based singer-songwriter whose work has been compared to great American songsmiths such as Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. Burge just released a compilation of his many appearances on Mountain Stage earlier this year, entitled “Live on Mountain Stage 2006-2015.”
The Last Waltz is one of my favorite subjects. I was looking at the wiki page on it — which I have never done before — and the film was originally recorded on my birthday, which I thought was kind of cool.
The significance of the movie itself is so far-reaching. I can only really speak about my personal experience with the movie — which I didn’t think was a very interesting story until I thought about it more and realized that it actually kind of was. I was 12 years old when the film was recorded, so I didn’t really pay any attention to it when it came out because that wasn’t really the kind of music I was listening to at that age. My parents had divorced two years earlier than that, and I listened to a lot of the music that they listened to, probably more than most kids of that age do. My mom was a big Aretha Franklin fan; and she was also a big Neil Diamond fan, which was about as square as you can get; I was really into Neil Diamond.
My dad was into Charlie Rich, and I still go back and listen to Charlie Rich, more than my dad ever did — he mostly listened to his hits. That stuff really holds up well. Charlie Rich could have been Elvis if he had been standing up — but anyway, he was a wildly talented musician. When we’d have show and tell at school, I’d bring in a Charlie Rich or Neil Diamond record. But Neil Diamond is the one who led me to believing that Bob Dylan was cool — and that’s maybe the first time anybody on planet Earth has ever said that.
I became interested in The Last Waltz during my second year at West Virginia University; when there was a strip of bars that has since been cleared out. There was one bar called the Bull Pen Deck, and I have these vague memories of a guy who looked a lot like Jake Lamata from Raging Bull (another Scorsese film) who would tell bad poetry on a mic some nights. He had a VCR or a laserdisc player, I can’t remember which, and he would sometimes play movies on a big screen in his bar. It was very rare for someone to have technology like that in 1982 or ’83; I feel like I should be whistling through my dentures when I say that. But sometimes he’d play a Led Zeppelin concert film and that was cool — and sometimes he would play The Last Waltz, which I would request again and again, at first because I wanted to see Neil Diamond; but that quickly changed.
But Neil Diamond is the one who led me to believing that Bob Dylan was cool — and that’s maybe the first time anybody on planet Earth has ever said that.
I’d sit there after class and be blown away by the whole thing, again and again. I was aware of it just because Neil Diamond had put out an album called Beautiful Noise, which was produced by Robbie Robertson (of The Band), and it had a very different sound, which I was really into. It all sort of clicked for me, that was my first understanding of The Band. It was also my real introduction to Dylan because at the time I had a suite mate who I shared a bathroom with, and he would play some Dylan every once in a while, stuff like “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and I couldn’t take it. I remember thinking that it wasn’t really like music. And now I can’t even fathom ever thinking that.
It was fascinating to see Bob Dylan’s performance on The Last Waltz, Neil Young’s too. All of that predates my songwriting, so sometimes I think that going after class to see the Last Waltz played in that bar sort of became a part of my nervous system. That was back when you couldn’t really re-watch things; and for the first time in my life I was watching Levon Helm’s profile as he sings “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and I get chills just talking about it. It was the most moving performance I had ever seen — I had never seen someone perform like that. I couldn’t get enough of it, and I was very impressionable as a musician at the time.
Perley is the front woman of Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons, a Columbus-based rock ‘n’ roll outfit who is fresh off of the release of their sophomore full-length effort, “Homemade Vision.”
Oh man, I believe that The Last Waltz is the most beautiful, epic, rock and roll documentary ever created.
I remember first watching it either my senior year in high school or it might have been freshman year of college at Ohio University; can’t remember exactly what year it was when I first watched it. But when I did I watched it over and over again and felt like it changed everything for me and made me really yearn to be an artist, and to grow through those kind of experiences of living through songs and traveling with a band.
I was so inspired by The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters songs in that concert that it really made me really dig into all of their recordings and learn about the old folk, rhythm and blues and country songs that had influenced them.
Now that I look back on the film, I actually feel like I can relate to some of the experiences and hardships that The Band went through in their earlier days of touring. We haven’t stolen bologna from supermarkets yet — but it is tough out there. (The) main thing it makes me realize is how special each moment is in life; and how music is such a great connection to share and celebrate between people — it truly can be a magical and healing thing.
Butcher is the director of program services at WOUB Public Media.
On Sept. 9, 1978, my friends and I went to the Dayton Mall cinema to watch the Dayton premiere of The Last Waltz. The showtime was at midnight! The place was packed. Back then, midnight movies were something new. It later became a regular part of our social activities. It was odd being inside a mall at midnight.
My friends and I were into music and excited that there was a MOVIE about The Band. The lineup of musicians performing was amazing. My friend, Jawanna, couldn’t help but yell with delight when Neil Young appeared on screen.
38 years later, I have fond memories of that evening, but… they are are a bit fuzzy. It seems to me that the song “Don’t Do It” went on forever. “The Weight” featuring the Staple Singers was probably my favorite performance.
I look forward to watching The Last Waltz on WOUB and reminiscing about that fall evening in 1978.
Gibson is the host of Crossing Boundaries on WOUB-FM and the drummer of Athens-based band The Summoners.
If you ask Gen X’ers (the ones who even know who The Band are, that is), some might say they first learned of the film, and maybe even The Band itself, through clips MTV used to play during its early days. I remember they used to play “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a lot.
I would have been 11 or 12 when I first saw that clip. It was my first introduction to The Band, and probably Martin Scorsese. Radio around here didn’t play The Band and I would have been too young for Scorsese’s films. I do remember it piqued my curiosity, not only because the drummer sang but because the look of the clip was so striking — the way the Winterland Ballroom was staged and filmed. It really is a beautiful looking movie.
I finally saw the full movie on VHS when I was in high school, but didn’t become a hardcore Band fan until college. Been hooked on their music ever since. I’ve now seen The Last Waltz countless times and it remains one of my favorite music films.
I should also add that the movie kickstarted my fascination with many of the other performers in the film, namely Neil Young and Van Morrison. I was aware of Neil and Van before seeing The Last Waltz, but I’m pretty sure I started buying their records after seeing the movie.