When I saw The Last Waltz, I remember thinking: This is a concert documentary like no other I’ve seen. I was impressed by the rich color and sound, the interesting camera angles of the performers, both on stage and backstage, and the candid-looking interviews of The Band members. The sophisticated, classical look of the film, what many call the greatest concert documentary ever made, should come as no surprise since award-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese directed it.
As a devoted fan of The Band, I was curious to know what had taken place behind the scenes, before, during, and after the farewell concert. So I read the memoirs of two Band members: Robbie Robertson’s Testimony and Levon Helm’s This Wheel’s On Fire. I found that while they agree on a number of details, their tone and attitudes differ greatly. Robertson tends to give a more positive slant, especially about his own contributions, while Helm doesn’t hold back his bitterness about a number of issues, including his feelings that Albert Grossman (The Band’s manager for many years), Robertson, and the music publishers cheated the rest of The Band members out of publishing rights and royalties that went to Robertson. From their accounts, it is easy to see why The Band split up.
The Last Waltz has become inextricably associated with The Band’s farewell concert, even though the documentary film, which lasted a few minutes shy of two hours (including interspersed Band member interviews), captured less than half of the actual concert, which clocked in close to five hours. The concert was held on November 25, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, where The Band had held their first concert 17 years before. Returning full circle to where it had all begun felt right to the band of musical brothers. They had traveled a long road together, touring the U.S. and abroad. They had lived and created together in houses they had turned into recording studios (Big Pink in Saugerties, New York, and Shangri-la in Malibu). They had faced many of life’s vicissitudes together: difficulties in maintaining marriages in light of performance schedules, financial difficulties, health problems due to substance abuse and car accidents, physical and mental fatigue from many years on the road, including the difficult Dylan-goes-electric years when audiences continuously booed them. The added stress arising from creative disagreements and fights over publication rights proved to be too much to bear.
The idea to film the last concert had been an afterthought, according to Robertson. Bill Graham, impresario and rock concert promoter for many sixties musical groups, had suggested the momentous event be documented on film. After considering other directors, Robertson approached Scorsese, who by then was heralded for two critically acclaimed films, Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) and for filming the biggest musical event of the sixties: Woodstock.
The Band wanted the concert to be “a musical celebration,” according to Robertson, something that would capture the essence of what they were about. And they wanted “not just artists who were close friends and influences, but people who represented the many different musicalities we respected” to be part of that celebration. This would mean more than a dozen performers, and a long evening, something that posed technical challenges in terms of filming. Scorsese and his cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), feared the cameras could overheat if run continuously for several hours, especially if the better-quality 35 millimeter film were used. “It’s never been done for a concert before,” Scorsese is quoted in Testimony.
Graham took charge of the logistics. Winterland, opened in 1928, was an old building. Graham was concerned that the balconies overlooking the ballroom, once a skating rink, looked scruffy, and he wanted them refurbished. He was also concerned that filming requirements would damage the interior. Scorsese had said he wanted to drill holes through the floor and send stabilizing poles to the solid ground in order to secure the setups for three main cameras on the “cushiony floor.” Graham didn’t want these modifications to be made, but Robertson threatened to cancel the show if the changes were not made, so Graham relented.
The production’s tight budget forced the filming and production crews to get creative. Scorsese, ever the meticulous filmmaker, wanted a more theatrical look to the set, “... something … with backlighting and amber footlights and spotlights, like in MGM musicals.” The crew borrowed elegant chandeliers for the ballroom, but there’s some discrepancy in the accounts whether they came from the set of the San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata, or from the set of Gone With the Wind. Wherever the chandeliers came from, they provided a set that Scorsese described as “completely original for a rock concert, especially one called The Last Waltz.”
The most interesting bit of planning, I think, involved what took place before the event. Since the performance was to be held on Thanksgiving Day, Graham suggested that real turkey dinners with all the trimmings should be provided for each of the guests, friends and relatives of the performers. White-clothed dining tables, and chairs, would be set up on the ballroom floor, and after dinner they would be cleared to allow the guests/audience to waltz to the tunes of the 38-piece Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Interestingly, this part of the evening, along with some other aspects of the farewell concert, would never appear in the documentary (but more about that later). Getting back to the food, just how many turkeys and trimmings does it take to feed 5,000 people (figure provided by Wikipedia)? Here are the stats, according to Helm’s memoir: 220 turkeys, 500 pounds of cranberry sauce, 90 gallons of brown gravy simmering in crocks, a ton of candied yams, 800 pounds of mincemeat, 6,000 rolls, and 400 gallons of cider. The stuffing was made of 500 pounds each of onions and celery, 70 bunches of parsley, and sixteen quarts of herbs sautéed in 100 pounds of butter. The guests who didn’t eat meat could still sample some of the 400 pounds of fresh salmon from the Alaska fish company owned by Lou Kemp, organizer of the Rolling Thunder Revue and a Minnesota boyhood friend of Bob Dylan. All of that food staggers the imagination, and yet not one breadcrumb, or slice of turkey, or giblet was captured on celluloid.
In Part II, I’ll talk about heated-up efforts to finish writing songs just before the performance, other last-minute activities, the concert itself and the tensions behind the scenes, and the fallout afterward.