The Last Waltz

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Phases and Stages

The Last Waltz

D: Martin Scorsese; with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Staple Singers, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, and starring the Band (MGM) The reason Almost Famous will forever define its titular designation is because the audience knows the rock & roll isn't real. From Ed Sullivan to MTV, and in neighborhood saloons and stadiums across the planet, anyone born after the Fifties has had access to this country's universal gift to (eternal) teenagers -- up close and personal. This is also the reason most music-related films are zzzzz: They don't bottle the lightning. Martin Scorsese's rock & roll masterpiece, 1978's The Last Waltz, not only makes Cameron Crowe's sweethearted biopic play like a Disney flick, it gives Gimme Shelter a thoroughbred's race for the title of Too Good to Be True. A standard doc format, live footage cut with interviews -- and even VH1-like soundstage performances -- The Last Waltz has three times more live-wire onstaging as Gimme Shelter, and a much more conventional storyline than Jonathan Demme's wondrous Stop Making Sense. And what a story: It's 1976, and the quintessential Sixties band, the Band, is giving its last performance at Bill Graham's Winterland ballroom in San Francisco. Enter Scorsese, on weekend AWOL from New York New York -- the wunderkind who helped shoot and edit Woodstock -- with his seven cinematographers, and hallowed Hollywood production designer Boris Levin. Filming in 35mm instead of the concert standard 16mm, Scorsese obsessed over every shot -- scripting every solo, every tambourine shake -- and even he, in The Last Waltz DVD's 20-minute featurette, was astonished at the outcome: "The clarity and the beauty of it were kind of shocking to me. I said, 'It's a movie! This is something very special.' It wasn't flash, it wasn't phony theatrics. It was people expressing themselves with music." And how. Van Morrison's ass-kicking "Caravan," Muddy Waters' murderous "Mannish Boy," Dylan's possessed frontman panache. Despite being the best backup band ever, the Band solo is the heart and soul of The Last Waltz; Levon Helm flat-out tears his longtime bandmates a new one on opener "Up on Cripple Creek" and later on a gut-bucket rip through "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," while Rick Danko is sole spotlight on the poignant "Stagefright," and poor, doomed Richard Manuel sings immortal on "The Shape I'm In." Dueling commentary tracks -- an uncharacteristically dull Scorsese and self-aggrandizing Robbie Robertson vs. funny, eloquent, revealing Dr. John, Greil Marcus, Garth Hudson, and a heartbreaking, throat-cancer-ravaged Helm -- plus archival stills and a 12-minute jam outtake that bolster this refurbished music history document. Best of all, when the film's over, the uncut, 4-CD audio portion of The Last Waltz will spin in your stereo same as your head and heart.

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