For rock 'n' rollers, one of the great American Thanksgiving pastimes is the ritual movie marathon with Martin Scorcese's film The Last Waltz, the farewell concert documentary for The Band, Bob Dylan's backup unit and studio conspirators between 1965-76, including work on Dylan's seminal album, Blonde on Blonde. Considered one of the greatest concert films of all time, and often cited as inspiration for filmmakers and songwriters alike, The Last Waltz pays tribute to five of the most influential and respected musicians from the 1960s and '70s.
Why a group of Canadian musicians would celebrate their sendoff on the United States' holiday of grace had more to do with Bill Graham, who hosted notorious Thanksgiving celebrations each year. But either way, on November 26, 1976, those who possessed the magic $25 ticket for San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom feasted their eyes and ears on show-stopping performances by the most renowned musicians in contemporary folk, rock, and blues.
With the doors opening at 5:00 p.m., concertgoers were first served with a lavish turkey dinner accompanied by ballroom music. All this followed by readings of Chaucer and other poetry from Beat legends Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure. An elegant affair, aside from chandelier's dripping from the ballroom heights, Graham rented the set for the stage production of La Traviata to use as the backdrop for the farewell show.
The Band took the stage at 9:00 p.m., opening things up with a 12-song set beginning with “Up on Cripple Creek” and ending with “Rag Mama Rag.” Ronnie Hawkins was the first guest act of the evening, celebrating the Band's late '50s beginnings when they served as the Canadian rocker's backup band under the name The Hawks. For the rest of the evening, playing as the backup band for their guests, the Band jammed with an all-star troupe ranging from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell. For the final performance, the Band did four songs with Bob Dylan, celebrating their decade-long tenure with the counterculture's poet laureate. At 2:15 a.m. the Band encored with “Don't Do It,” the last song they would ever play together live.
Producer Robbie Robertson hand-picked Martin Scorcese to make The Last Waltz based on the impeccable work of his first film, 1973's Mean Streets. Released two years after the actual event, at an hour and 57 minutes, The Last Waltz opens with a card that reads, “This film should be played loud!”
Upon its April 26, 1978 theatrical release, the film received critical acclaim across the board, getting panned only by New York Times lone wolf, Janet Maslin, who wrote of the film, “you can't help realizing that for all its impressive musical accomplishments, 'The Last Waltz' is a great lost opportunity. There is a dazzling array of talent on display here, and the film surely has its memorable moments. But it articulates so little of the end-of-an-era feeling it hints at... that it's impossible to view 'The Last Waltz' as anything but an also-ran.”
While the film has its flaws (too much focus on Robertson, alleged cocaine boogs dangling from Neil Young's schnoz, etc.), never has an American critic been so embarrassingly off. Captured by seven 35mm cameras operated by hugely talented cinematographers such as Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver) and Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider), the warp-drive footage is truly breathtaking. In 2002, a restored version of film was released in theaters for the 25th anniversary celebration, alongside a DVD box set that includes commentary by Scorcese and Robertson and a portion of the previously unreleased all-star jam. Then four years later, The Last Waltz was given the honor of being one of the first 20 titles to be released in High Definition Blu-Ray DVD.
Levon Helm – drums, mandolin, vocals
Robbie Robertson – guitar, piano, vocals
Rick Danko – bass, fiddle, vocals
Richard Manuel – piano, organ, drums, clavinet, dobro, vocals
Garth Hudson – organ, piano, accordion, synthesizers, soprano saxophone
Bill Graham – master of ceremonies
Ronnie Hawkins – vocals
Dr. John – piano, guitar, congas, vocals
Bobby Charles – vocals
Paul Butterfield – harmonica, vocals
Muddy Waters – vocals
Eric Clapton – guitar, vocals
Neil Young – guitars, harmonica, vocals
Joni Mitchell – acoustic guitar, vocals
Neil Diamond – guitar, vocals
Van Morrison – vocals
Bob Dylan – guitar, vocals
Ronnie Wood – guitar
Ringo Starr – drums
Emmylou Harris – acoustic guitar, vocals
Pinetop Perkins – piano, vocals
Carl Radle – bass
The Staples Singers
Stephen Stills – guitar
Edited down from the five hours of actual concert footage, the 117-minute documentary opens with “Don't Do It,” the encore from the live show. Along with rare studio footage, the film features 25 of the 41 performances from the event, interspersed with interview clips from Band members recalling the milestones of their history. Following is the song list as seen in the film.
The Band: "Don't Do It," "Theme from The Last Waltz," "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In"
Ronnie Hawkins: "Who Do You Love?"
The Band: "It Makes No Difference"
Michael McClure: "Intro to The Canterbury Tales"
Dr. John: "Such a Night"
Neil Young: "Helpless"
The Band: "Stage Fright," "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
Neil Diamond: "Dry Your Eyes"
Joni Mitchell: "Coyote"
Paul Butterfield: "Mystery Train"
Muddy Waters: "Mannish Boy"
Eric Clapton: "Further on Up the Road"
The Band and Emmylou Harris: "Evangeline"
Garth Hudson: "Genetic Method/Chest Fever"
The Band: "Ophelia"
Van Morrison: "Caravan"
Neil Young: "Helpless"
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: "Loud Prayer"
Bob Dylan: "Forever Young," "Baby Let Me Follow You Down"
The Band and all-star guests: "I Shall Be Released"