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Ohad Landesman on The Last Waltz and Shine a Light

The concert film, sometimes classified as the rockumentary, revolves around a central paradox: it documents a live performance that is already staged and fabricated. This popular form of nonfiction filmmaking frequently aligns with the interests of the music industry, often leveling a sympathetic, largely uncritical attitude toward the talents it documents. In following Bob Dylan’s tour of England in Dont Look Back (1967), for example, D. A. Pennebaker works rigorously under the unobtrusive methods of direct cinema, even though he cannot help but glamorize the young, talented, and ruthless Dylan, who seems constantly mindful of his own performance. Albert and David Maysles’s Gimme Shelter (1970), widely considered to mark the end of the cinema-vérité era, is another case in point. It chronicles the last weeks of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 U.S. tour, which culminated in the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, where an African-American man was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels, the murder caught on camera by the Maysles brothers. Pauline Kael, in a famous indictment for the New Yorker, suggested that the filmmakers were indirectly responsible for this killing, concluding that “the violence and murder weren’t scheduled, but the Maysles brothers hit the cinema vérité jackpot.” Given that rockumentaries have not been traditionally forthcoming in how they cooperate with artists to publicize their music and help craft their personas, can they really be regarded as documentaries? What kind of reality are they truly documenting other than the calculated construction of mythologies?

Martin Scorsese, who early in his career worked as the assistant director and one of the editors of the landmark music documentary Woodstock (1970), would later direct his own two concert films, The Last Waltz and Shine a Light, released exactly thirty years apart (1978 and 2008, respectively). Made in the mode of observational documentary, these films mark a slight shift from the basic paradox of the rockumentary. Both provide a reflexive meditation on the nature of the rockumentary and expose some of the strategies used for cinematically reshaping and restructuring the concert. In that sense, Scorsese tries to have his cake and eat it, too. Since Shine a Light feels more like a rockumentary that belongs to the present moment while The Last Waltz is a kind of elegy, it might be appropriate to reverse the chronological order and end by analyzing the latter.

Music has always driven and structured key scenes in Scorsese’s films. The transition from using music in the service of filmmaking in his fictional works to using film in the service of music in his documentaries is not unexpected, given how central narrative is to both approaches. Watching Shine a Light, Scorsese’s document of a Rolling Stones performance at New York’s Beacon Theatre in fall 2006, one cannot help but consider the various ways in which Scorsese has rhythmically matched the Stones’ music to key moments in Mean Streets (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), Goodfellas (“Monkey Man”), and The Departed (“Gimme Shelter”). In Shine a Light, songs are also cut and arranged carefully with technical cinematic proficiency. Director of photography Robert Richardson, a longtime Scorsese collaborator, worked with nine other cinematographers and eighteen cameras to show the stage from many vantage points, mimicking
the gaze of various audience members. Shooting digitally for the first time in his career, Scorsese ensures that there is always a camera at the right place and time at any given moment of the performance. For a devoted Stones fan, watching Shine a Light is a revelation. The carefully composed camera coverage grants the viewer a VIP pass that provides unique access to the show. Scorsese keeps everything spatially coherent, and we are always aware of where the musicians are in relation to one another. The Beacon Theatre is a relatively small venue, with fewer than three thousand seats, but it becomes even more intimate on-screen. Mick Jagger, sixty-three years old when the concert was filmed, moves across the stage with the unrestrained agility and infinite stamina of a circus acrobat, and the cameras follow him from only a few feet away. Quite opposite from the melancholy tone that defines his earlier Last Waltz, Scorsese is instead documenting in Shine a Light a band that refuses to leave the stage.

“Can you picture yourself at age sixty doing what you do now?” an American interviewer asks Jagger in 1972 footage Scorsese incorporates near the end of the film. “Oh, easily, yeah,” Jagger responds. Here, and throughout the many interview segments between the concert numbers, Scorsese wishes to ruminate on the passage of time. Archival footage from the band’s glory days not only provides historical context but also disrupts the concert’s flow, emphasizing the presence of Scorsese as auteur. In the film’s opening sequence, right before the concert commences, Scorsese is shown fiddling with a sketched list including the song order and the mapping out of camera positions on the stage. Jagger, quite expectedly, voices his dislike of the shot setup, and refuses to commit to a final set list for the show. Such a performative conflict between Jagger and Scorsese reflects an ego clash between giants, as well as a formal strategy of deconstruction. Scorsese wishes to rethink the given assumption of linearity in rockumentary, and at the same time proves the promise of unmediated spontaneity in cinema vérité to be false.

Scorsese first took pains to play with the conventions of the rockumentary with The Last Waltz, which is often referred to as one of the best rock movies ever made. It chronicles the final concert of the Canadian-American roots-rock group the Band, on Thanksgiving in 1976. After joining Bob Dylan on his US tour in 1965 and collaborating with him on The Basement Tapes two years later, the Band began to perform on their own, eventually releasing ten studio albums, all deeply entrenched within the sounds of the Deep South. Eric Clapton once said that their debut album, Music from Big Pink (1968), changed his life, while Roger Waters has called it “the second most influential record in the history of rock and roll” after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Some critics would argue that rock ’n’ roll has never been the same after that album. In 1976, just when the New York Times recognized them as “perhaps America’s most respected rock group,” the Band had begun to feel they’d had enough. Lead vocalist and guitar player Robbie Robertson wanted to play a farewell ballroom concert in San Francisco, for which they would recruit everyone that they had played with over the years to accompany them onstage, including some of the greatest living R&B legends. Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Ringo Starr are only a few of those who joined the Band onstage that night. Jonathan Taplin, who was the road manager for the Band and the producer of Mean Streets, suggested that Scorsese would be the one fit for documenting this swan song (interestingly, Scorsese was still on postproduction for the musical drama New York, New York when the shooting commenced). “That’s the last waltz, after seventeen years on the road,” Robertson tells Scorsese in one of the interviews interspersed among the songs in the film. “There’s not much left that we can really take from the road.” This concert is intended as an elegy and as a self-imposed ending to what Robertson defines as “a goddamn impossible way of life.”

What could have easily turned into a nostalgic musical journey through the sixties and early seventies or a flattering nod to the apexes of the musicians’ respective careers becomes instead a film that is not simply celebrating the past but also looking to the future. Scorsese is not interested in utilizing the rockumentary format to merely idolize the Band or honor its music. Nor does he wish to lament a bygone musical era or study how the years have affected these musicians. The past is lost, he acknowledges, and there is no point in using film to falsely mythologize it—it is this loss with which The Last Waltz engages. As such, Scorsese abandons conventional linear structure and plays with the chronology of the events. “We’re gonna do one more song and that’s it,” says Robertson before introducing the concert’s encore, which comes at the beginning of the movie. It’s only after the Band plays this cover version of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It” that the film flashes back to the start of the show, and follows it more or less in order. The audience of the film is watching the concert as a flashback of sorts, an unusual rockumentary strategy that suggests that the event itself is irretrievable, unreachable. When Scorsese tries to impose some eulogizing onto the film by asking Robertson if the concert should be seen as “the end of the beginning,” Robertson responds with a hopeful, if convoluted, spin on the cliché: “It’s the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning.”

Robertson seemed to benefit more than his bandmates from The Last Waltz. Robertson worked closely with Scorsese on editing the film, and then followed it by embarking on a career as a Hollywood music producer. Out of all the band members, Scorsese examines only Robertson in detail and ends up crafting the film around his persona. While Robertson repeatedly refers to Scorsese as the “conductor,” it quickly becomes clear that Robertson is really running the show. His dominance over the other members is most apparent in the studio interviews. Nervous and edgy, Scorsese is not a particularly keen interlocutor, and the interviewees frequently turn the questions back on him. In their cohabitated on-screen space, Robertson often pleads with Scorsese to ask his questions again, or to reemphasize a statement. It becomes apparent that there is almost no room for spontaneity, and Robertson dominates the conversation with his magnetism. He is the most outspoken member of the Band, and next to him the rest seem merely decorative or clichéd rock ’n’ roll types (when we hear band member Richard Manuel saying that the main reason they stayed on the road so long was women, Robertson can be seen sitting in a corner, looking above his fellow musicians with a patronizing smile).

In a 2002 essay in Film Quarterly, Stephen Severn wonders how much of a documentary this film really is, since it “derives from its decidedly non-objective presentation of the demise of the Band.” While The Last Waltz records for posterity this remarkable concert, and the project that helped facilitate it in the first place, the film also moves beyond the music and the musicians. One of its most unconventional features is its elimination of the audience and exclusive focus on the band. In many concert films, images of the audience function as reverse shots from the point of view of the musicians, helping to simulate the firsthand experience as closely as possible. While we do occasionally see glimpses of the audience in The Last Waltz, they are so infrequent that no direct dialogue is maintained between the performers and those watching. The multiple cameras grant the viewer a privileged access to the stage from every possible angle except the perspective of the audience. This creates a filmic space in which we are united with those who create the music, yet are separated from those who listen to it. (The opening sequence, which shows desolate streets shot from a traveling vehicle, is the only exterior in the whole film.) While in other concert films the audience and the musicians are often feeding off each other in an ecstatic synergy, this film prompts the question: who are these musicians playing for? If the Band is indeed commemorating its own musical achievement, how much of this self-conscious celebration is really made for an audience?

Music in The Last Waltz is played for its own sake. It exists at a remove from the audience, and also from the specific spatial and temporal coordinates of its live creation. Scorsese’s is the rare film in which live music sounds as though it has been recorded in a studio, and this is mostly discernible in its restored version (the sound is so unusually crisp and clean that its track division even clearly individuates the handclapping of the backup singers). This not only invites us to contemplate the nature of the concert film but also to consider the phenomenological effects of music and how the genre can be used for a virtuosic cinematic experience. Nothing in this carefully constructed private world is coincidental or spontaneous; the concert becomes a highly coordinated filmic event guided by a two-hundred-page script and shot operatically with inventive and complex camerawork, which like the rhythmic editing is often synchronized with the music.

It’s worth noting that The Last Waltz was the first concert movie ever shot on 35mm, and it was filmed by legendary cinematographers Michael Chapman, László Kovács, and Vilmos Zsigmond, joining forces with four other DPs and eleven first assistant cameramen. While many concert films of the era took advantage of smaller and lighter 16mm cameras to intimately observe their subjects, Scorsese moved away from the clichés of cinema vérité. Some have argued that such an aesthetic shift puts too much of a distance between the viewer and the Band, but the calculated camerawork and lavish filmmaking achieve quite the opposite effect. With his full access, Scorsese puts us in unparalleled proximity with some of the biggest legends of seventies rock ’n’ roll (so close, in one case, that we might notice the traces of cocaine in Neil Young’s nostril). As in a Busby Berkeley musical, the sweat and toil required to achieve this momentous performance are made invisible. In the final sequence, shot on a movie set, the credits roll over a crane shot ascending into darkness. The Band is on a soundstage playing the concluding theme “The Last Waltz,” with no audience watching or listening. This is the most intimate moment in the film—it is now truly only us and the musicians. Everyone else has already gone. It begs the question: what does the future hold for them? Is it the end, the beginning, or the end of the beginning?