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From his work on assembling Woodstock 50 years ago through to his latest doc on Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese has played as much of a role shaping documentary cinema as he has with his fiction projects. His 1978 film The Last Waltz is one of the greatest rock-docs of all time, showcasing the extraordinary final shows of The Band at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in November 1976. 

With its mix of live performance, studio takes and quirky and intimate interviews, the film is a definitive document of a particular time in popular music, showcasing a wide range of talents at the height of ’70s excesses, and where a group of individuals chose to call it quits at the top of their game. Joined by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, the goal was to not only celebrate this group’s success, but to do so with artists that both influenced and help shaped them as a working outfit.

The Last Waltz show has been revisited for decades, and it remains a show for the ages. It helps define a particular era of music in unparalleled ways, thanks in large part to the documentation of the show both audio-wise and visually as captured by Scorsese and his team. Famously, the doc begins with a simple title card informing the projectionist that “this film should be played loud”, making that single frame one of the most truthful articulations ever set to celluloid.

Scorsese and The Band’s guitarist and principle songwriter Robbie Robertson were on hand at TIFF to show a restored version of this non-fiction treat, and as part of the introduction the director shared a few stories to set the stage. “This is special, seeing it in a theatre, where it was meant to be seen” is how the esteemed director introduced the film to the audience, and given the quality of the restoration he couldn’t have been more right. 

There has been plenty written about how the project came about, but it’s clear that it was an accident of sorts, and that basically Scorsese left an existing production (in a cocaine-fueled period of his life) without notice to go chase this dream of capturing the concert on film. “John Taplin called at me and said there’s going to be a concert and would I want to shoot some of it”, Scorsese told the audience. “I said, well, I’m busy doing this other film in New York [ie., New York, New York (1977)] , etc., etc. Long story short, Robbie and I met, and we just started coming up with ideas of how to record it maybe, as a document in a sense. We had all kinds of ideas, about whether it was to be on 16mm, video even, with different positions, that sort of thing. Eventually, we came up with the idea of 35mm.”

What made the Last Waltz so groundbreaking was its capture on multi-camera 35mm film, an extremely complex and challenging accomplishment in the mid-70s. “Shooting 35mm for this kind of event just wasn’t done”, said Scorsese. “It was too tricky, the synch motors would break, cameras would run out of film. You have to be overlapping [the capture], you have to design the whole thing so that cameras wouldn’t move. The concert turned out to be about seven hours, so it was quite a thing!”

Scorsese had taken lyric sheets and line-by-line created specific shooting angles to match the words of the songs. For other performances, such as the Staple Singers’ amazing stint singing “The Weight” with The Band, a full studio was used complete with dolly tracks and giant cranes to capture the true cinematic impact. With Michael Chapman as the lead cinematographer, additional credited directors of photography included some of the prime lensman in cinema history, including László Kovács (Easy Rider), Bobby Byrne (Bull Durham),  David Myers (THX 1138), Hiro Narita (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) and Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller). The idea was things were going to be so chaotic, so on edge about whether it could even be accomplished, that an army of full generals would be put out to man the cameras, ensuring at every point a steady hand was there to capture as much as possible.

For whatever the turmoil about the film’s brief production – this was after all the breakup of The Band, and tensions were almost as high as the participants – the end result remains spectacular, and never looking better than with this latest presentation. Scorsese recognizes its almost accidental existence fondly: “It’s a film that was made, and it became organic. It kind of formed itself over a period of two years, really. The event was ’76, the film came out in ’78, and it turned into something special.” 

That legacy continues, with the bond between The Band’s leading songwriter and Scorsese continuing to this day, including music for his latest film The Irishman. Given all the drama involved in production and getting the work to the screen, it’s a minor miracle it exists at all. “It’s a picture that kind of saved my life at the time”, Scorsese admitted, “and it’s very special to me.”

Forty years on, it’s very special to a great number of us.

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