A master among masters, Martin Scorsese’s filmography is not to be overlooked. angry bull, GoodFellas, The Irishman– you know programming. But what sometimes goes unnoticed are the documentaries, a dozen of them, personal and nuanced works that play like B-sides of his singles. Take the 1970s: average streets shows the pitfalls of life outside the home, and Italian-American take that back to the living room. American boy hauntingly associates with Taxi driverbut nothing matches the pound-for-pound grandiosity and excess of New York, New York like the years 1978 The last Waltzrecently restored and available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
After eight years as one of the defining bands in rock ‘n’ roll history, the band’s Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits and wanted to go out in style, one last gig. The venue: San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The date: Thanksgiving Day 1976. A full dinner was served. An orchestra played while the audience danced. Then the band took the stage and welcomed friends (Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, etc.) for one of the greatest gigs of all time. It was a seven-hour affair—the 70s was nothing if not excessive—and Robertson figured if they were going to do it, they might as well record it.
Scorsese liked the band and agreed that something needed to be filmed, if only for posterity. Perhaps a black and white videotape would suffice. Then they considered 16mm film. Not good enough. You might as well use 35mm. But why use one 35mm camera when you can use seven? And why call on standard cameramen when you can hire the greatest filmmakers of the time? Then Scorsese took the setlist and broke each song into storyboards so everyone had a plan. Since Scorsese saw Powell and Pressburger The Tales of Hoffmann as a child he wanted to make a “compound film”. The last Waltz could be his greatest success.
I don’t think Scorsese did anything with such joy. Yes, there’s the music – Robertson’s raspy riffs, Levon Helm’s driving beat, Richard Manuel’s honky-tonk piano, Garth Hudson’s ethereal keyboards and Rick Danko’s perfectly rock ‘n’ roll vocals on ” Stagefright” are transcendent – but there is also camaraderie. Scorsese is known for making films about the corrupting influence of male bonding. And although Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples make an appearance, The last Waltz is primarily a boys’ club. But look at how the outbidding of performers is at the service of creation, not of creators. This stage beats with everything but toxicity.
There’s an interesting dichotomy in Scorsese’s films. He does spiritual works – films of Jesus, the Dali Lama, missionaries – but his street films might resonate a bit more with God. Same here. Watching The last Waltz it’s like going to church. My proof: Watch the band perform “The Weight” with the Staples Singers – if Mavis’ phrasing of the second verse doesn’t move you, I don’t know what will.
“The Weight” is one of the band’s most recognizable songs. But here Scorsese finds something new. The cut between the performers, the lights rising and falling behind them, the synthesis of image and sound, lyrics and music that coalesce into something that can only be described in one solitary word – spoken by Mavis Staple, in a low voice so as not to spoil the magic – as the last note fades: “Magnificent”.