WHEN I FIRST SAW The Last Waltz in 1978,1 almost walked out, although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a sitdown Thanksgiving turkey dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.
Twenty-six years and a new DVD version with compelling video and redone audio have changed, or at least made subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz teeters between grit and awe— perhaps unintentionally but tellingly, like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.
When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed it “the most beautiful rock movie ever.” As a formalist she had a point. With seven cameramen who included Vilmos Zsigmond, Scorsese professionalized the deliberately nonprofessional documentary sensibility of DL Pennebaker and the Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times. In the 1970s, mainstream rock had been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that exploded somewhere between Elvis, an R & B revue, and West Side Story. Breakdancers with turntable artists were appearing on the streets of cities like New York, as punk rockers were in the clubs. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic consistently underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.
And so now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double-vision: it's an elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era. The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping across