I think it's rare today that I go a couple of weeks without reading another article in some entertainment magazine (most recently, in Rolling Stone) about the severe status of the recording industry. Music faces several problems that aren't getting cleared up; while one can, I suppose, argue the merits of the music of many of today's teen chart-toppers, those artists could really have their audience walk away a couple of weeks or months from now. The other aspect that the recording industry must face is digital downloading and music recording and working out how this can benefit artists. Overall, CD sales are down almost 10% from last year.
"The Last Waltz" is Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary of the final concert given by The Band, whose 16-year career was coming to an end. Given that they had a wealth of friends in the music business, the group invited many famous faces (Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr and others) down to the Winterland ballroom.
Several other major rock documentaries had been presented to audiences in the years prior, including "Woodstock" and "Gimme Shelter". "The Last Waltz" does present the end of The Band, but I'm not quite sure that I'd agree with the Rolling Stone quote on the back of the box that the film is "one of the most important cultural events of the last two decades." Maybe I'm too young to make such statements (probably), but watching it now, it simply seems like a very well-staged and beautifully filmed concert, capturing some of the most highly-regarded names in rock. "Gimme Shelter" seems like a bigger piece of history.
Rather than simply film the concert, Scorsese hired extremely well-known cinematographers and crew and planned out the camera work for each song in storyboards. This is probably the birth of the kind of filmed rock event that we see a lot of today, with directors like Hamish Hamilton commanding 20-odd cameras to try and film U2 for the "Elevation Tour" presentation, for example. I suppose that the documentary is also capturing the begining of the end of the kind of presence that this kind of classic rock had in the music industry as the 70's went into the 80's, as well.
VIDEO: According to the commentary by Robertson, "The Last Waltz" was originally concieved as a video project and bloomed from there into a full-on 35mm film project (I believe this is the first rock documentary in 35mm). For a film that is now about 23-years-old, I was frankly very surprised at how good this film looked. With only a few exceptions during some of the interview footage, sharpness and detail are impressive. The picture often boasted fine depth to the image and appeared very well-defined.
Flaws were sometimes apparent, but they certainly didn't take away that much from the presentation. The print used was largely clear and clean, although there were some minor specks that occasionally popped up. A couple of tiny instances of artifacts showed up, but nothing in the way of edge enhancement was seen. The film's rich color palette was very well-presented, appearing nicely saturated and vivid, with no smearing or other flaws. Overall, a pretty remarkable presentation.
SOUND: The film is offered either in Dolby Digital 5.1 or a remastered 2.0 soundtrack. As the image quality was surprising, the sound quality similarly exceeded my expectations, considering the age of the material. Producer Robertson supervised the audio remastering and it's impressive how immersive this soundtrack is in 5.1. The music is remarkably crisp, clear and detailed and reinforced beautifully by the rear speakers. There's not a great deal of bass, but I really didn't mind very much, given how exceptional and enjoyable the recording was to listen to.
MENUS: The main menu provides some slight animation and background audio, but the sub-menus are static. All are nice looking and easily navigated.
Commentary: The first commentary is by Robbie Robertson and director Martin Scorsese. Each of the commentators are recorded on their own and their comments have been edited together; Scorese's comments are apparently from an interview, while Robertson's comments are screen-specific. Scorsese's part of the commentary is very informative, as the director provides a solid discussion of the production. Still, the director's comments are only taken from an interview and there are fairly large spaces between his participation. Robertson certainly takes up much of the remainder with a highly entertaining and insightful discussion of working with the other artists and the production of the concert in general. I really found this commentary fascinating, as Robertson was able to remember an amazing amount of detail about the performances and Scorsese brought a lot of information about his involvement in his occasional interview clips.
Commentary: This second commentary is from writer/journalist/friend of Scorsese Jay Cocks, rock critic Greil Marcus, Band Tour Manager Jonathan Taplan and occasional insights from other artists who perfomed in the show, such as Levon Helm, Ronnie Hawkins and other folks, such as "New York, New York" producer Irwin Winkler. While the Scorsese/Robertson commentary was superb, this commentary covers just about every other base possible. Cocks and Marcus bring insight about the project and the music, while the artists talk about what it was like to play at this classic concert. Both commentaries are must-listens.
Revisiting the Last Waltz: This is a 22-minute documentary that includes interviews with Robertson, Scorsese and others, who provide a very informative discussion of the who arc of preparation to performance and afterwards. Some of this information is covered in the commentaries, but it's interesting to see a visual summary of the whole thing.
Also: A 12-minute jam session outtake starring many of the big names from the show, the theatrical trailer and TV spot as well as a photo gallery broken into 4 sections ("The Concert", "The Studio Shoots", "The NYC Premiere" and "Posters and Lobby Cards").
Final Thoughts: "The Last Waltz" is a wonderful rock documentary that captured passionate performances from some of rock's greats, strongly filmed and designed by Scorsese and crew. MGM and DVD Producer Automat Pictures have obviously put a great deal of care and effort into the DVD presentation and supplements. Everyone involved in this release deserves high praise. Recommended.
The Film *** 1/2