"This is our last waltz, this is our last waltz, this is ourselves... under pressure!" I suppose I could have quoted the Engelbert Humperdinck song, but I feel that that 1980s Queen/David Bowie pop-rock collaboration was more fitting for this discussion about The Band, because this film was the last chance to take the load, or rather, pressure off of Annie, like The Band had been asking for, like, a billion times, or for however many choruses there are to "The Weight". No, "The Weight" is a good song, and it's not the only good song by The Band, as this film will definitely tell you with one heck of a concert that I'd imagine was even better for many of those involved in this concert and film, due to this event's great importance... and all of the cocaine. Yeah, I know a concert in the mid-'70s without any drugs is no real concert at all, but come on Martin Scorsese and Neil Young, this isn't Woodstock '99, even though I do like the idea of seeing Scorsese tweaking out with his eyebrows frizzed up. Maybe Bob Dylan didn't want to be filmed because he was worried about people making cocaine-related jokes about his nose, seeing as how he couldn't have honestly been worried about this film driving attention away from "Renaldo and Clara", even though it was bound to be a huge success, what with its experimental structure, low-profile limited release, weak critical reception and four-hour runtime. They say that Dylan was finally convinced to give the okay for his being filmed because he was informed that this film would be released months after "Renaldo and Clara", but by the time January 1978's "Renaldo and Clara" was finished, this film would have been a week into its April release, so that white hat and possible fear of jokes involving white powder had to have been the only things on his mind at this time. I mean, he had to have known that this film was going to be the success that it ended up being, and justly so, because, again, this is a heck of a show, and it makes for a heck of a film, which isn't to say that "Renaldo and Clara" is the '78 film featuring Bob Dylan that has problems.
The film tacks on some interview material, which certainly adds to the entertainment value with some interesting information, but if Martin Scorsese is going to go as far as to incorporate more depth to this documentary, then he may as well go further, yet ultimately doesn't, or at least not as much as he probably should, putting no real structure to the interviews that ultimately give you only so much information to digest. The problems within the usage of the interviews are very light, yet they do dilute momentum a smidge by thinning out certain areas in depth that probably shouldn't have been present to begin with, even if their purpose is kind of noble. Scorsese attempts to break up the repetition of straightforward concert footage with the backstage material, yet ends up making that structural concept formulaic, to where, after a while, the documentary ends up feeling more repetitious than it probably would have been if it had just stuck with the aimless concert material, which does indeed still taint the focal structure of this film as a documentary. Jeez, speaking of monotony, I'm really trying to crowbar in discussions of flaws, but either way, the fact of the matter is that this ambitious project incorporates somewhat unnecessary aspects that end up being flawed by their own right, to the detriment of the final product that it was trying to ameliorate with the flawed questionable touch-ups. In all fairness, in a lot of ways, the additional touches to this documentary do, in fact, color things up, but they add a few light blemishes that don't really belong, and that actually leaves you to focus upon the final product's natural shortcomings, because at the end of the day, it's all about the concert, which is, of course, a strong show, but not quite strong enough to make a feature film all that terribly upstanding. There's not a whole lot that's wrong with this film, but that's partially because there's simply not much at all to the film, which is rewarding, - partially because of the theatrical touches that work, and largely because it simply revolves around a good show - but not quite with enough kick to be all that strong of a film. With that said, while the lack of meat emphasizes what shortcomings there are, it all emphasizes what strengths there, and let me tell you, there are plenty of strengths to this documentary, not just as a showcase of fine musicianship, but as a well-polished cinematic effort.
The first of several post-"Taxi Driver" Michael Chapman/Martin Scorsese collaborations, this film, at the very least, looks really good, for although the feature production-grade quality of Chapman's cinematography dilutes some of the realist documentary immersion value, but still catches your eyes with rugged coloring and lovely sparse plays with the stage lighting that give the film a distinguished look that makes it, not just a concert flick, but a visual treat. The film isn't exactly stunning, but its handsome photographic value reflects the theatrical value of this distinctive rockumentary/concert film, thus livening up the entertainment value that, of course, mostly rests on the shoulders of the center focus of this film: the concert that marked a grand finale for The Band. Like I said, The Band's Thanksgiving farewell concert of 1976, which drives this film, isn't quite strong enough to make the final product truly upstanding, and it doesn't help that some of the performances kind of run together, if not feature the occasional monotonous spell within themselves, but on the whole, it's hard to deny that this is a heck of a show, featuring a generally dynamic and plentiful set of classic and thoroughly entertaining songs that go brought to life by the charismatic presence and sharp musicianship of The Band and its guest collaborators. Not every song is strong, but most every piece of this concert presented in this documentary proves to a thoroughly entertaining display of what people would be missing once The Band broke up, so as a showcase of inspired, well-done and all around fine live performances, this film excels. Of course, there is a bit more to this film than just good songs, and as I said earlier, that's not always a good thing, as the non-musical theatrical supplements to the range of this documentary often get to be a bit too undercooked for their own good, but just as much as, if not more than they are problematic, such touches as backstage material breathe some life into this film, whether when it's charmingly displaying The Band merely hanging out, or presenting interviews that, while superficial in their depth, give you some degree of insight into the history of The Band through plenty of interesting, maybe even humbling stories. There's a certain heart to the musicians as they tell their tale, and such a heart goes matched only by the heart within Martin Scorsese's direction, which structures scenes in a way that keeps the liveliness of the music pumping the film with consistent entertainment value, broken up by a degree of resonance, summoned from the warmly well-presented more soulful numbers. Not all of Scorsese's touches work, but the ambition within his direction backs genuine inspiration that brings enough of the entertainment value to life for the shortcomings to go overcome, maybe not to where you end up with an excellent film, but certainly to where you end up with quite the thoroughly enjoyable rock film.
When the waltz is done, somewhat superficial interviews and a repetitious structure prove to be light issues that go a long way in emphasizing the natural shortcomings that secure the final product as far from excellent, but not so far from enjoyment that lovely cinematography, generally interesting backstage filler, heartfelt direction and a strong concert that stands at the end of it all aren't able to make Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" a rewarding and thoroughly entertaining tribute to and showcase of the talent of a group as legendary as The Band.
3/5 - Good