Blog Directory CineVerse: Seventies swan song

Seventies swan song

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Many film critics and scholars consider Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" the greatest of all rock docs and concert movies. A big reason is the high production values and cinematic structure employed, with the songs performed and interviews rendered providing a dynamic narrative that is both entertaining and fascinating in its construction. Below is further proof of this picture's fine pedigree, as discussed last night at CineVerse:


  • This movie features direct interviews with the band members as well as expected concert performance footage. 
  • This was the first feature-length concert movie actually shot on higher-quality 35mm film as opposed to cheaper 16mm film. The filmmakers also employed multiple 35mm cameras to cover various angles for each performance. 
  • Director Martin Scorsese carefully planned this production – in contrast to the “capture whatever you happens” style of guerrilla filmmaking utilized in Woodstock, Monterey Pop and other previous concert films. He wanted this to be a controlled environment, and he went so far as to storyboard each song and create a script detailing the set list and lyrics to every song. 
    • He hired excellent technical talent to achieve his vision, including Boris Leven – production designer on The Sound of Music and West Side Story; and ace cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Writer, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) and Vilmos Szigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance). 
    • He meticulously choreographed camera moves using cranes, rolling tracks the cameras moved along, handheld cameras, and stationary cameras, and he planned dramatic stage lighting – elements that correspond with certain songs and even lyrics to a song or guest appearances. The filmmakers also focused on recording better sync sound that didn’t rely only on the camera’s microphone. 
    • The set, located in the Winterland ballroom in San Francisco, was carefully dressed and appointed with decor like eye-catching chandeliers used in Gone With the Wind. The backdrop was borrowed from a San Francisco Opera recent production. 
    • In fact, the filmmakers even recalled many of the performers back to the stage months later to shoot additional performance footage. 
    • As a result, the rock artists had to relinquish spontaneity and organic performing in exchange for a precisely edited, more cinematically appealing film that attempts to capture virtually everything – priceless expressions, smiles and winks passed between the performers, transitions to solos, etcetera. 
    • Consequently, this picture is more cinematic, fluid and rhythmic than earlier concert film efforts that appeared ragged, improvisational, and raw. 
    • “Although he sometimes acts as if the final show were a bit overproduced, Scorsese’s use of Hollywood professionals to dress up the movie was a very good move,” wrote DVD Savant reviewer Glenn Erickson. “Frankly, most earlier concert films tended to become repetitious and boring, unless one were a fanatic music fan. The carefully planned lighting changes and nicely designed stage sets give the show an edge. For once, a concert film isn’t a poor substitute for really being there.” 
    • Erickson further wrote: “Scorsese’s filming didn’t imitate the camera clich├ęs of television variety shows, swooping past meaningless decor, pulling focus on blurred lights, or combining close-ups and full body shots in double exposures. His angles are straightforward and powerful, brightly lit and sharply focused.” 
    • Rolling Stone’s David Fear wrote: “There’s an incredible sense of the community onstage that gets captured by making this a performance film first and foremost, and that was exactly what Scorsese was after. The director wasn't interested, he said, in showing two girls giggling and then cutting to Rick Danko looking like a Tiger Beat pin-up; he wanted to see Helm shooting Danko a glance as they lock into the beat and go into the bridge of "Ophelia." It's as cinematic a rendering of the alchemy that musicians – and especially those five Band members – produce when they're caught in that spotlight.” 
  • Interestingly, the subject matter of the film is a rock group who arguably wasn’t as well-known at the time, or even now, then many of the subjects of other famous rock docs or, for that matter, most of the guests who appear alongside them in this movie. Also, the kind of rock that The Band played and was known for isn’t as popular a sub-genre: roots/folk rock, alt-country, or “Americana.” 
  • Other concert performance movies often feature ample crowd shots and close-up reactions from fan attendees. This movie is all about the performers on the stage and the statement they’re trying to make. 
  • Surprisingly, the movie begins with its encore, showing the concluding number that was filmed and then segueing to the concert’s earlier moments. 
  • The end of an era: this is meant to be the swan song farewell for The Band, who want to go out on a high note. 
  • Tribute and homage: rock royalty come to pay tribute to a lesser known but highly respected and appreciated group; their presence in the film elevates the occasion and the stature of this rock doc. 
  • Performing music well is like a graceful dance – hence the significance of the title of the movie. A waltz is also considered a more formal, regal and traditional dance appreciated by the cultured and sophisticated, just as this movie arguably has a more formal and traditional structure and cultured and sophisticated sheen about it. 
  • Mean Streets 
  • Taxi Driver 
  • Raging Bull 
  • The King of Comedy 
  • Goodfellas 
  • Casino 
  • The Departed 
  • Hugo
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

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