The Last Waltz commemorates the career of The Band, the rock musicians who came to prominence as Bob Dylan's backing group on his world tour of 1966 - the tour which saw Dylan switch from acoustic to electric, and turn rock music on its head.
The Band went on to have a bold solo career, meeting up with Dylan for major projects along the way - and then lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, who called the shots for The Band, decided to call it a day.
He decided to end it all by a huge farewell bash, with special guests, at Bill Graham's Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1976. This was The Band's Last Waltz. And they did themselves, and their fans, proud.
I've had for many years a bootleg four-CD set of the complete night. Now comes the release on DVD of selected highlights from that night (and some replacement footage filmed later in the studio). It's the 112-minute movie by Martin Taxi Driver Scorsese. Scorsese, a fan of The Band, was assistant director of Woodstock. In The Last Waltz he created a testament to 1960s and 1970s rock which is a perfect complement to that earlier movie.
His multi-camera filming is discreet and unobtrusive. There's no need for showy technique; it's The Band and their guests who are on show here.
And what guests they were! The film gives a generous sampling of a very long night, and at the end of this review I'll list all the guests and their songs - something the DVD liner omits. But they include such greats as Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr - and the man who brought The Band to world prominence, Bob Dylan.
There are surprises - perhaps the greatest is the presence of Neil Diamond, the pop-singer and writer (Sweet Caroline, I'm a Believer etc) amongst all the rock-heavies. But it shouldn't have been surprising - Robbie Robertson is a great selector of talent. And Neil Diamond's sensational live concert album Gold, a semi-acoustic set recorded at the LA Troubador back in 1969, showed what an awesome talent he was, once you saw past the kilogram of gold chain and the bad-taste clothes.
This is one of the truly great rock documents. D.A. Pennebaker's two testaments, Monterey Pop and Don't Look Back are perhaps more evocative of their time and place (and the Criterion DVD of Monterey Pop is an awesome achievement) but The Last Waltz is an evocation of a wondrous night, and wonderful careers.
Some highlights include a fired-up Neil Young playing Helpless (rock legend has it that the film was treated in the laboratory to remove a large clump of white powder sticking to his nostril - he'd been helping himself to the large open dish backstage), and Muddy Waters doing a sensational version of Mannish Boy, as he shows the young kids how it's done.
Van Morrison's Caravan, Dr John the Night Tripper's Such a Night - the list goes on. But at the end comes what everyone's waiting for - on walks Dylan, and it's as if the whole concert moves into overdrive.
He rips, with the group, through Forever Young, and then into a number which featured on the revolutionary 1966 tour, Baby Let Me Follow You Down, showcasing The Band playing with the same raw high-voltage energy which we heard on that tour. Then everyone comes onto stage, grabbing a bit of the action, some space in front of the microphones, for one of Dylan's greatest songs, I Shall Be Released.
Great stuff. Absolutely historic, totally compelling. Go get it. And here's the list of artists and their songs, in running-order:
The Band: Don't Do It
The Band: Theme from The Last Waltz
The Band: Up on Cripple Creek
The Band: The Shape I'm In
Ronnie Hawkins/The Band: Who Do You Love?
The Band: It Makes No Difference
Dr John/The Band: Such a Night
Neil Young/The Band: Helpless
The Band: Stagefright
The Band/The Staples: The Weight
The Band: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Neil Diamond/The Band: Dry Your Eyes
Joni Mitchell/The Band: Coyote
Paul Butterfield/The Band: Mystery Train
Muddy Waters/The Band: Mannish Boy
Eric Clapton/The Band: Further On Up the Road
Rick Danko: Sip the Wine
The Band/Emmylou Harris: Evangeline
Garth Hudson: Genetic Method
The Band: Ophelia
Van Morrison/The Band: Caravan
Bob Dylan/The Band: Forever Young
Bob Dylan/The Band: Baby Let Me Follow You Down
Bob Dylan, The Band, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood: I Shall Be Released
The original two-channel stereo is strong and vivid, with immediate presence and a full deep-dimensionality.
Robbie Robertson supervised, for this release, the preparation of the alternative Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack; it is as detailed as the stereo, but with the extra presence 5.1 allows. On balance however, I prefer the historically accurate two-channel version, but how good that we've been given the choice!
On both versions the sound is awesomely better than I've ever heard this concert sound before. Tight and crisp, and with strong punchy bass.