My most favorite Thanksgiving film is not an obvious one. It’s The Last Waltz (1978, dir. Martin Scorsese). The Last Waltz was a concert by, The Band, held on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Billed as a “farewell” performance after 16 years of touring, the concert saw The Band joined by more than a dozen special guests, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young.
Needless to say – it is not your typical concert film. It is one of the ultimate concert films. From Up On Cripple Creek to It Makes No Difference to The Weight to Coyote to Helpless to I Shall Be Released and on and on…
I didn’t see the film until 1988. I was in graduate school in Iowa City. I had just ended a nine-year relationship. I was alone and had the flu. My sister, Betty, had sent me a copy of it on VHS taped from PBS. I watched it ten times over the weekend. Two things were clear by Sunday night – I felt better, I loved The Band more than I had and I developed a massive crush on Robbie Robertson. He really has wide appeal – our mother had a crush on Robbie, too. And – I am pretty sure Scorsese had a major man-crush on the dude back then. The dreamy interview interludes with he and Marty are great. (I do suspect though that Danko and Helm probably made fun of Robbie behind his back for all the attention Marty showered on him in the film.)
The Band was Dylan’s (that would be Bob) back up band for years. His performance is unusual in that he seems happy – buoyant even. Bob, love the white pimp hat.
They also used to open for Ronnie Hawkins – think awesome biker rocker. Hawkins does a mean rendition of Who Do You Love?
And – Van the Man (Morrison) really rocks Caravan in a maroon pantsuit. Muddy Waters is A Man. Eric Clapton breaks his guitar strap. Jonie Mitchell is stellar. Neil Young is well, he’s Neil Young for FuckSake. You will think Neil Diamond is cool. Rick Danko maybe sublime. Levon Helm possessed. And – by Richard Manuel will break your heart with his soulful voice (Richard,why did you have to kill yourself?)*.
You don’t have to have just ended a relationship or be sick to enjoy the merits of the film. Watch it for the music and get sucked in by the oral histories – from Helm talking about the Midnight Rambles of the South (which he re-creates every weekend at his Woodstock farm), to Hudson telling his parents he was a music teacher rather than a poor, touring rocker and Manuel telling it like it was.
Years later, Betty and I went to a reunion concert of sorts that had Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. It was sort of sad and sort of great.
For an unsentimental take on the whole thing read rock promoter Bill Graham’s autobiography Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, 2004.
* Robertson tells Scorsese in the film – “The numbers start to scare you. I mean, I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” I thought it sounded a little rehearsed in the documentary but I guess it was still true. Richard Manuel committed suicide in a hotel room while on a reunion tour with The Band.