The Last Waltz
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More than just one of the greatest concert films ever made, The Last Waltz is an at once ecstatic and elegiac summation of a vital era in American rock music. Invited to document the farewell performance of the legendary group the Band at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving, 1976, Martin Scorsese conceived a new kind of music documentary. Enlisting seven camera operators (including renowned cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond, László Kovács, and Michael Chapman) and art director Boris Leven to design the strikingly theatrical sets, Scorsese created a grandly immersive experience that brings viewers onstage and inside the music itself. That music—as performed by the Band and a host of other generation-defining artists, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, the Staple Singers, Muddy Waters, and Neil Young—lives on as an almost religious expression of the transcendent possibilities of rock and roll.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original negative. I am working from the disc included with the 4K edition. Outside of lacking the UHD, the Blu-ray edition is the same as that edition.
The new restoration and high-definition presentation deliver a sharp boost over previous presentations with a cleaner, more film-like image. Grain, on the whole, comes out looking much neater and less digital, despite a handful of instances where mild macro-blocking is noticeable in the blacks or reds. This leads to sharper and cleaner details with a generous amount of range in the shadows, though still not to the level the UHD’s HDR presentation accomplishes. Colors, especially those reds, come out bolder, and black levels look richer. It’s all rather striking.
The restoration work has also cleaned up things amicably, with only a handful of minor blemishes popping up here and there. Overall, it’s a sharp, noticeably better image than previous ones.
Criterion includes three audio tracks: a remastered DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack, the original 2.0 surround soundtrack, also in DTS-HD MA, and a PCM stereo mix. The 5.1 mix is more dynamic, delivering a more expansive range level for the performances, which reach higher levels than the 2.0 presentation. Even the interview segments sound sharper. Distortion is never an issue. It also doesn’t sound like any filtering has been applied.
The other two soundtracks sound fine, and the 2.0 surround one is there (I assume) for the purists, but the range is far more limited, the audio never reaching the peaks that the 5.1 can. Still, it has been cleaned up, and distortion is never an issue. But if you want to show off your audio set-up, the 5.1 soundtrack delivers.
Criterion’s new edition doesn’t feature much material one could consider new. However, they do include a couple of exclusive items (unlike Eureka’s Region B edition) and appear to have ported most everything over from MGM’s DVD special edition, starting with two audio commentaries, the first featuring director Martin Scorsese and musician/consultant/”Band” member Robbie Robertson. The second one features a wide assortment of individuals, including “Band” members Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, journalists Jay Cocks and Greil Marcus, creative consultant Mardik Martin, producers Jonathan Taplin and Steve Prince, Cameraman Michael Chapman, Music Producer John Simon, Irwin Winkler and performers Mavis Staples, Dr. John and Ronnie Hawkins.
The Scorsese/Robertson track (both recorded separately) proves to be the more technical of the two. Scorsese isn’t all that interested in the concert itself, and his contributions to the track focus more on editing, the technical difficulties (which led to having to do separate staged performances for the camera), keeping cameras out of the way, the use of 35mm, and the cinematic influences. Unsurprisingly, Michael Powell’s work was a major one regarding influences; the filmmaker even showed Robertson the ballet scene in The Red Shoes to give an idea of what he wanted.
Robertson’s comments get into some of the same technical details Scorsese covers around positioning cameras and preparing the concert so that it could be filmed without interfering with the live performance. He also talks about getting the concert together, finding the performers, and how the film came about. Scorsese may not have seemed like a top contender at the time to direct, but Robertson notes how he found Scorsese had a unique and fresh way of incorporating music into his films, which sounds to have been a big reason for his involvement.
The second track (with most participants recorded separately and some material possibly being spliced in from interviews) is a hodgepodge that provides perspective on the concert and film from third-party participants and those who performed. There are comments about the concert and the music performed, the “Band” members even explaining the backstory to some of them. Staples, Hawkins, and Dr. John usually pop up once they appear on screen to talk about their sets, and Cocks, Marcus, and others talk about the significance of the concert and the musicians that played it. There are also some details from the crew members about filming it, and somewhat humorously, producer Irwin Winkler pops in to talk about his surprise at Scorsese doing the film, though he admits he still hadn’t seen it.
They’re fantastic tracks, neither featuring any filler nor fluff, covering the concert and the film staggeringly.
Criterion has dug up a 1978 interview recorded for the Canadian CBC program 90 Minutes Live featuring Scorsese and Robertson and is one of the two exclusive supplements on this edition. Running around 15 minutes, the two discuss why “The Band” was ending and why it was decided to “immortalize” the concert and structure the film the way they have. It’s a nice find, but even better is a newly recorded interview with Scorsese by Rolling Stone senior editor and critic David Fear, running around 31 minutes. It ends up being an excellent reflection that expands on comments made in Scorsese’s commentary track, with him getting a bit more personal. In the commentary, he is more concerned with the technical aspects of creating and editing the film, but here he talks with Fear about the music and its meaning at the time and why the song “The Weight” was so important (and why he had to use staged footage). He then gets into editing, but the conversation eventually leads into his Bob Dylan “documentary” Rolling Thunder Revue when talking about narrative and documentary features. An academic element is missing from this release, and I had hoped this one would fill it. It doesn’t, but it's a solid new inclusion as an updated discussion about the film.
The rest of the material comes from the previous MGM DVD. There’s the 22-minute making of Revisiting the Last Waltz. It’s like most making-ofs from MGM of the time, featuring Scorsese and Robertson. It’s OK but essentially a summary of every other feature in this release. A bit more interesting is an outtake that consists of 12 minutes’ worth of footage featuring “Band” members Robertson, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson “jamming” with Neil Young, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Stephen Stills, Carl Radie, and Ronnie Wood. Unfortunately, after running for over six hours, the camera had to be shut down so it would not overheat, and the last couple minutes are audio only. The film’s original trailer and a TV spot are also included.
Sadly, Criterion’s edition then closes with a simple insert (featuring a surprisingly short essay by New Yorker writer Amanda Petrusich on the concert and the film’s depiction), opting not to go the deluxe route Eureka did with their Region B limited edition, which featured a 100-page book loaded with material. The film calls out for a more lavish-looking release like that one, but at the very least, all of the material found here, both old and new, is very good.
Criterion only adds a few new features, but the new presentation improves over previous editions.