Save `The Last Waltz' for me

Scorsese forever changed expectations of rockumentaries

May 08, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Last Waltz, opening tomorrow at the Senator Theatre in a new print with even sweeter sound, changed the face - including the ears - of rockumentaries forever.

Before Martin Scorsese's celebration of the Band came out in the late spring of 1978, everyone thought they knew what a rock-concert film was supposed to move and sound and feel like: a jumping-bean, an alley cat and a Mack truck, respectively. The catch-as-catch-can images would meld into a psychedelic haze (often with out-and-out fantasy interludes), while the soundtrack snapped, crackled and popped and the editing kept throwing in shots of screaming crowds to hype audience reaction in the movie theaters. Even in exceptions like Woodstock (one of the only comparable rock films), events tended to overwhelm the music.

While making The Last Waltz, a record of the the Band's Thanksgiving Day farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland in 1976, Scorsese wasn't going to stand still for washed-out, shaky, hand-held camerawork or fuzzy sound or indecisive editing. He hired one of the most extraordinary camera teams ever assembled to film a live event, headed by cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but also including Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider) and David Myers (Uforia).

Scorsese had them shoot in 35mm (previous rockumentaries used 16mm blowups) to achieve an unprecedented clarity of performance imagery. He preserved this clarity with the ineffably "right" flow of his editing, staying focused on the performers carrying each number rather than lapsing into the general euphoria of the group scenes on-stage or in the audience. And he matched this clarity, even more incredibly, in the simultaneously full-bodied and crystalline sound.

The Last Waltz became one of the first films to push Dolby Stereo technology to the limit. In the digital remix, you can hear the bass roar and a pick drop - at the same time.

Scorsese drew criticism by threading the movie together with his own offstage interviews of Band members. Admittedly, it's easy to be put off by his frenetic manner.

But the interviews are actually offhand and informative. They touch on the rangy (and sometimes mangy) experiences that poured into the Band's blend of melting-pot rock 'n' roll - which helped renew the grass-roots democracy of the '60s' style and spirit at the tail end of the counterculture.

If you see Waltz today, you may be refreshed at how unashamedly personal and various it is. Each of the Band's members is a rich visual subject - not just the most famous ones, like Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, but also organist Garth Hudson, who comes off like a cross between a church organist and the Phantom of the Opera, or bass player Rick Danko, who resembles, in both his looks and his expressiveness, the young Robert De Niro.

Each guest performer, from Bob Dylan and Dr. John to Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond, is given his or her due. Some, like Muddy Waters and Van Morrison, come close to stealing the show. At the end, when everyone joins Dylan and the Band onstage for "I Shall Be Released," the film doesn't homogenize the performers aurally or visually.

The most wonderful paradox of The Last Waltz is that it uses precise aesthetic means to arrive at a joyous expression of polyglot vitality.

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