Thoughts on The Last Waltz, the movie that made me discover The Band
I remember the night I met The Band. The details of that troubled period of my existence are blurry, but somehow, the moment I first heard the musicians who would change my life is still vivid in my memory. I was leaning on the couch in my living room, channel-zapping listlessly. For a reason that is perhaps mystical, I stopped on PBS. The announcement for the next program was The Last Waltz. Consequently, I pictured something boring, in a ballroom with an orchestra playing Glenn Miller, while elderly couples would waltz on the dance floor.
Yet I knew right away it wouldn’t be what I had imagined when the warning: This film should be played loud! appeared on the screen. What the hell was that? Before I could think any further, those men came on stage, cigarettes stuck between their lips, cool hats and all. And that guy who said Happy Thanksgiving with his mischievous grin — God, who was that striking man? It didn’t take me long to find out, since the names showed in orange letters while the band played Don’t do it. Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson. I was hooked.
Because I’m Canadian, American Thanksgiving has always seemed more grandiose than the one in my country. Since I have discovered The Band, this holiday has taken on a new meaning. Every year, I watch the episodes of Friends, and of course, The Last Waltz. This farewell concert, held on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, is so emotional that I have to stop watching it and switch to Rachel Green serving her trifle-Shepherd’s pie. Believe me, it eases the tension after Levon had sung The night they drove old Dixie down in a way that would bring tears to the eyes of even the most hard-hearted people.
Even today, the moments that moved me the first time I watched the movie still does. The Band, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell singing Helpless, the “full-on Canadian sequence” as Robbie put it. And of course, Dixie-Down. It amazed me when I first heard it. Levon’s emotions are so raw, it is almost unbearable. He knew it was the last time he was Virgil Caine, and he put his heart into that song.
Despite the greatness of the movie, the decline of Richard Manuel in The Last Waltz is heartbreaking to watch. My love for Richard is no secret, but I fell in love with Rick Danko first. I am ashamed to confess that my initial impression of Richard was, “Who is that man wearing an awful plaid suit?” Moreover, he was visibly intoxicated during the interviews. In This Wheel’s on Fire, Levon said, “Richard later complained that he was so drunk at the time, he couldn’t remember being filmed.” He was in the shadows in The Last Waltz, so much that during a screening of the movie, Ronnie Hawkins whispered to Levon, “Was Richard still in the group when we did this?”
However, I could feel something more profound, something broken inside Richard Manuel. Uneasiness seized me when he laboriously sang I Shall be released at the end of the concert. Later, when I heard him sing the same song on Music from Big Pink, the beauty of his falsetto stunned me. I realized then that I had a lot to learn about that complex man, and I wanted to know the circumstances that had led him to the despair he showed in The Last Waltz. For those reasons, I wish I had discovered The Band with the video of Tears of Rage at Woodstock (note to Albert Grossman’s spirit: it would have been the case if The Band had been included in the documentary.) Thus, my first perception of Richard would have been one of a talented musician with a celestial voice.
Even the blissful moments, like the one with Paul Butterfield — Levon’s boyish grin during Mystery Train melts my heart every time — are mixed with melancholy because I know how it ended. The Last Waltz possesses a magical ambiance, but it is tinged with melancholy. Melancholy for the end of that band, who grew up together. They entered adulthood with the Hawks, and their brotherhood deepened with The Band while they recorded with Bob Dylan at Big Pink.
In The Last Waltz, all those years they spent together ended before our eyes. This concert was the funeral of The Band. Rick Danko was still grieving when he played the recording of Sip the Wine to Martin Scorsese. “Now that The Last Waltz is over, what are you doing now?” Scorsese asked.
“Just making music, you know, trying to stay busy.”
Without these interviews with the members of The Band, The Last Waltz wouldn’t have carried that sense of closure. It would have been an unforgivable Thanksgiving concert, but it wouldn’t have had the same finality. I wish I could recover the innocence I had when I first watched The Last Waltz. Back then, I didn’t know that Richard Manuel killed himself ten years after the concert, or that Rick Danko succumbed to heart failure in 1999. I just saw the obvious: five gifted musicians who played their last concert with a bunch of friends, and more famously Bob Dylan, who wore a polka-dot shirt, perhaps in homage to his world tour with The Hawks in 1966. Yet they all had changed during those ten years. They had matured to become those men who, though only in their thirties, were disillusioned and worn out by rock and roll.