The Last Waltz (Movie Review)

Nowadays the so-called “farewell” tour is as much a part of the music business as teen acts, Internet piracy and silicone. Tina Turner bid adieu in 2000. Cher brings her sayonara sojourn to Philips Arena on Tuesday. And you nearly expect Britney Spears to do some “buh-bye” dates before taking off on her much-publicized six-month break.

But these kind of staged so-longs weren’t so common when the weathered rock fivesome the Band played a goodbye gig on Thanksgiving 1976. This night made such a mark on rock history because of the Band’s substantial reach, backing Bob Dylan on the nearly mythic “Basement Tapes” and influencing the rock-god likes of Eric Clapton. The group’s parting event resulted in the much-heralded Martin Scorsese-directed film, “The Last Waltz,” screening tonight at the Fox Theatre.

The movie, recently released on DVD, features members Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson dressed in their cocktail-hour best, meticulously going through their staples: “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” They also get a little — well, a lot — of help from their friends. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Clapton all show up to pay their musical respects. And in the film’s most moving — and lovingly captured moment — the Staples join the Band on the rousing “The Weight.”

The cumulative result is an exquisitely rendered work that treats the music with an unprecedented amount of reverence and grandeur.

It’s also the most boring and overrated film in the history of rock.

The whole thing has the staid quality of a museum piece. The look of the film has the polished, brown veneer of your grandparents’ dining-room set. And the pacing is so leaden that viewing the film is less like watching paint dry than observing the evolution of man. Those who are accustomed to the quick cuts of MTV may frequently think the movie has become stuck on pause.

Much is made over the fact that Scorsese directed this wannabe epic, but it lacks the intensity of his classics. You find yourself hoping that a mohawk-wearing, taxi-driving Robert De Niro will rush the stage. Or maybe some Goodfellas could hold Dylan hostage.

The backstage scenes are even more lumbering with the guys making a bunch of “no, duh” observations about life on the road. You’re supposed to feel their singular pain when they talk about all the women who follow them from city to city. And you’re supposed to empathize with the hardship of playing in front of adoring fans night after night. Scorsese is too idol-struck to push any of the guys, particularly his buddy Robertson, who dominates the footage, to reveal anything insightful.

Nevertheless, the film has almost universally been hailed as a seminal piece of rock cinema. Rolling Stone even calls it “The best rock movie ever.” But, really, there are other rock films that have been far more influential. The gritty verite of “Dont[sic] Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 tour documentary on Dylan, has affected everything from Madonna’s zits-and-all “Truth or Dare” to “Meeting People Is Easy,” a pressure-cooker portrait of Radiohead.

Other films tremor with a friskier and more dangerous rock energy than “Waltz.” “Gimme Shelter” focuses on the tragic 1969 Altamont concert by the Rolling Stones. “Shelter,” which culminates in a murder, is a devastating document of the way the same elements that make a great concert — loud music, the loss of inhibitions, raised spirits — can turn deadly.

(The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” chronicling the 1981 “Tattoo You” tour, plays with “Waltz” tonight; the Fox ended up not being able to get the rarer “Ladies and Gentlemen the Rolling Stones,” originally advertised as being on the bill. Also, “Waltz,” “Shelter” and a documentary on ’70s rock films air on the AMC cable network Labor Day weekend.)

So why is “Waltz” so venerated by baby boomers? Because it’s talking to their gennn-eration. It speaks to folks who had to make a case for the seriousness and aesthetic importance of rock by stressing its links to more respected musical forms like blues and folk.

But now we’re able to guiltlessly enjoy albums by upstarts like the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes. “Waltz” is no more relevant to the current rock experience than a Fabian photo is to a Justin Timberlake fan.

It’s also ironic that, while the Band’s integrity has been praised since the original members never toured together after this farewell performance, the re-released movie in effect serves as a virtual reunion tour. It even continues to generate revenue through DVD sales or when it’s re-screened at a place like the Fox. The magic of the movies allows the Band to perpetually play on.

If you’re not already a convert, you may want to sit this “Waltz” out.


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