How They Made The Last Waltz

The story behind Scorsese’s documentary curtain call for The Band


It is hard to imagine a modern equivalent of the talent onstage at certain points in The Last Waltz. It is hard even to imagine a modern equivalent to The Band themselves; a backing outfit with an identity and output of theirs is somewhat out of synch with today’s musical world. The group of musicians stood together as the curtain fell on Thanksgiving Night 1976 are perhaps only rivalled by the best of closing slots at Woodstock or Glastonbury, but The Band’s association with these people was much more intimate than any festival send-off.

Four parts Canadian and one part American, they initially met backing Rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins before backing an electric Bob Dylan after he decided that was the way forward for his sound. It was after splitting from Dylan in ’68 with a sound of their own that Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm became officially known as ‘The Band’. Eight years later they would’ve ceased touring altogether, thoroughly jaded and amazed they made it through, but not without crossing paths with some of the greatest country, blues, soul, rock and pop artists of their generation – many of whom would join them onstage for their swan song.

A newly named The Band in upstate New York, 1969. L-R, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson

Seen as the end of an era, The Last Waltz – their agreed upon and heavily promoted last concert together – marked the end of their touring life, but also a change in the wind for rock n roll, which (depending on how you saw it) was either dying or morphing into punk and other offshoots. The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco was chosen because it was one of the first places they played as a group in their own right. With a relatively small capacity of five and half thousand, this assured not only exclusivity and sentiment but also a more manageable crowd for the man in charge of filming such an event, Martin Scorsese.

The project grew from Robertson’s original intention to document the night for posterity into a full blown studio project via Scorsese and was ultimately bankrolled by Warner Brothers. Six weeks before shooting they didn’t even have a director, but when the night came around, the stage was dressed with material borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, the songs were fully storyboarded like a feature film and the complex lighting cues all set – but even this was not foolproof. The sheer length of the concert meant that loading rolls of film and difficult camera manoeuvring limited what could realistically be captured. For starters, Scorsese had to cut into the sprung ballroom floor and pour concrete just to get the master camera steady for the night.

Thanksgiving dinner for the five thousand attendees before the concert. The central camera was manned by Vilmos Zsigmund, who also shot “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” that year

The seven cameras on the night were armed by some of the most celebrated cinematographers of the 20th century, but the broader staging of the film took several different forms. At face value, The Last Waltz is a live concert film, but it is augmented by several songs recorded at MGM Studios and interviews shot later at The Band’s “Shangri-La” studio in Malibu. Over the course of nearly five and a half hours (the film itself runs just under two), The Band played nearly 50 songs, punctuated by poetry readings and occasional chatter. Not only this, the whole affair was preceded by turkey dinner and ballroom dancing, making it one of the most memorable and eccentric nights in rock and roll history, as put on by legendary promoter Bill Graham.

Like a million dollar revolving door in the wings, most of the accompanying performers are introduced in a roundabout way by the intercut conversation preceding them: Neil Diamond is mentioned as a friend from Tin Pan Alley before playing Dry Your Eyes, and The Band talk about their sexual relationships with women on the road before Joni Mitchell joins them for Coyote, a song about her own exploits. One of the few not formally introduced is Bob Dylan, who at the time would hardly have needed an introduction to anyone, never mind fans of The Band. Dylan’s inclusion was the most complex, as he was making a film of his own and had a contract drawn up to minimise his appearance – which meant that despite his huge influence on them, was only filmed for two tracks and the stacked finale.

Some of the high profile guests who pepper the setlist amassed onstage towards the end of the concert

To draw particular praise to The Last Waltz as a piece of cinema – the most visually pleasing pieces in the film are naturally the two songs shot on a soundstage – The Weight, performed with The Staple Singers and Evangeline, performed with Emmylou Harris. Each were recorded separately in more of a live music video setting, using different camera rigs and a stage dressed more subtly – dark backing with soft red lighting for The Weight and a cool blue to compliment Harris’ dress on Evangeline. Using MGM’s sound stage meant they could do multiple takes and work at their own pace, as well as crucially dub audio later on, as was also done for any audio recorded at Winterland that wasn’t up to scratch.

The rest of the film was shot live as it happened and was not without incident. Drug use off-camera was rampant with cocaine particularly prevalent, though various members of The Band and their entourage were also using heroin. Drugs were such a feature that Neil Young infamously had to have cocaine painstakingly erased from his nose frame by frame in post-production. Many of the segueing conversations show The Band blatantly high and/or drunk as they discuss their messy touring career together. It’s not a particularly pretty picture at times, but it is at least authentic.

Robbie Robertson being interviewed at Shangri-La by a wiry Scorsese

The Last Waltz has been criticised for its focus on Robertson, a not unfair argument that has peaked and troughed in the almost forty five years since. The Band argued in the aftermath that the decision to end their time on the road was very much dictated to them by Robertson, while he argued they wouldn’t even have survived another tour. Certainly most of the screen time belongs to him and he was closest to Scorsese. Levon Helm maintained until his death in 2012 that he and the rest of the band were never paid fairly for the profits made from The Last Waltz. Watching it back however, there does seem to be an element of truth to Robertson’s claim that at times he felt like he was the only adult in the room. But then again, this was also a man who had his guitar for the night encased in bronze to celebrate the occasion, which made it so heavy he could barely play it. The politics behind The Band’s demise remain one of the great debates of the rock and roll world.

As the film begins, before any title or credits “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” flashes on-screen to remind the projectionist (and audience) what they’re in for. Scorsese’s meters read their highest come Van Morrison’s contribution, Caravan – to many, the musical peak of the film and one that features some even more out of sight performers than the other members of The Band. With horn arrangements from New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, this Caravan is turned up to eleven by deafening trumpets, trombones and saxophones who are barely shown – perhaps to highlight the men whose last night together was being celebrated. Robertson and Scorsese couldn’t believe their luck when a drunk Van – a typically taciturn and reserved man, began kicking the air to their fantastic sound. Tuba, piccolo trumpet and fiddle join this elusive horn section for another track The Band could not have left the stage without playing – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song which reflects much of the personal complexities of the group in itself; an American Civil War ballad written by a Canadian (Robertson), rueing the collapse of the Confederacy to an everyday southerner, sung by the bandmate he least got on with – drummer and Arkansas native Helm.

As the evening nears its close, Robertson and Danko gesture to the wings to bring onstage – in addition to Dylan already stood between them – Neil Young, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Star, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Ronald Hawkins, Dr John, Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles and Eric Clapton. Some time after performing their last track together, Robertson laments to Scorsese’s camera in Shangri-La about it all, “The road was our school, it gave us a sense of survival, it taught us all we know – but theres not much left that we can really take from it, before the film gently transitions back to MGM for the actual last waltz – a classical piece which would foreshadow Robertson’s impending career in film scoring alongside Scorsese.

“You’re still there huh?” – Robertson to the crowd before their 2am encore

But in order to properly appreciate the end of the concert as it actually happened that evening, you need to go back to the start of the film, where the encore was surreptitiously presented first. Ensuring a never-ending loop where The “Last” Waltz wasn’t never intended to be. And for a band as turbulent as they were, this is surely a much sweeter way of remembering them – infinitely in their finest hours, as opposed to the bitterness and squabbling that marked their careers thereafter. In a recent documentary about The Band, Bruce Springsteen said that together they were much greater than the sum of their parts would’ve suggested, and as raucously captured by Scorsese in their last waltz, savouring all they were about to leave behind – they were never better.

Mica Levi & the New Sound of Cinema

The woman at the forefront of a major shift in film composition

With her breakout score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin which announced her arrival as a talent with an ear for the unconventional, Mica Levi quickly established herself as one of the most exciting composers in film, an industry which is going through a revolution of sorts.

As part of the emerging new generation of film composers, Levi has found success not by following the well-tread footsteps of Williams, Zimmer or Giacchino, but by incorporating modernity and technology wholeheartedly into her work. Her entry into composing for film was not conventional, but convention is becoming less and less desired.

After moving from Guildford to London as a teenager, Levi DJ’d in nightclubs before studying at the Guildhall School of Music. During this time she was also invested in other non classical musical pursuits; her band “Good Sad Happy Bad” formed there and play sample-heavy, rhythm oriented pop, with less emphasis on melody and more on overall effect – an idea that bleeds into her film work quite substantially.

Under The Skin saw her plucked from relative obscurity at the time, primarily writing and touring with her band, to scoring a feature length, multi-million dollar film produced by the BFI and starring Scarlett Johansson. The result? Screeching, clashing violins and scarcely a consonant chord in the entirety of the film – Levi’s wonderfully creative response to the question; how do you create tension, unease and an extra-terrestrial element to a film set in a very drab portrait of Scotland?

Her entrance to film fits alongside other modern composers of unusual provenance like Tom Holkenborg, Brian Transeau, Brian Williams, Trent Reznor or Johnny Greenwood. All of whom are in marked contrast to their 20th century peers, who – as is still the case today – largely come from classical backgrounds.

Levi’s sound is characterised by unconventional registers, from shrill to superbass, rhythmically free and often with some sort of digital editing – techniques really only afforded to composers of the last few decades – and used more sparingly still. Fortunately for Levi, the mainstream hesitancy to embrace these conventions are probably why her scores are such a breath of fresh air. Because by and large, composing for film has barely changed in almost a hundred years.

Even her work for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie Kennedy biopic, which is as close to a traditional score as she has delivered, is not without modern influence. Neither major nor minor, it slides between notes dizzily, as Kennedy’s life presumably did. Levi offered more by ignoring the traditional dignified sound of trumpet and sweeping strings. Instead, even as Jackie chooses John’s burial plot, Levi opts for moody, almost jazz-like piano chords, painting a much muddier and human picture than we’d expect. Just as how a pair of shiny boots, while dignified and uniform, have had their character buffed out of them: the more interesting stories are usually found in the scuffs and in the dirt – in the case of Levi, her clashing notes and odd instrumentation.

Though she’s not alone in this movement. Nicholas Britell’s Oscar nominated score for Moonlight was based around “chopped and screwed” piano, a technique originating in Houston’s 90’s hip hop scene, and his score for If Beale Street Could Talk features echoed brass at an almost birdsong register. Anna Meredith’s soundtrack for Netflix series Living With Myself has a chip-tune video game sound, and her Eighth Grade score, a film aimed at a generation who have grown up entirely in the internet age, is similarly anachronistic. Meanwhile Johnny Greenwood is doing almost the exact opposite, producing exciting scores by taking classical instruments like violins and making them sound exiting with aggressive ingenuity.

Levi’s most recent score for Colombian hit Monos makes particular use of unusual noises, including a deep pulsing like a broken speaker. This contrasts the whistling and bird calls that the teenage guerrillas communicate with. Between the two, the score has an eerily primal sound. A primal energy which is also reflected in the film’s complete lack of exposition and almost complete lack of melody too. The exceptions are a handful of short but key scenes when flutes play, floating above the noise, like the mysterious teenagers who live above the cloud-line in their mountaintop military compound.

Photography Leah Walker

A similarly minimalist description could also be given for her efforts on Marjorie Prime, a film about a violinist with Alzheimer’s. Both scores run less than half an hour but are functionally important. In the case of Marjorie Prime, conveying themes of memory and grief while complimenting the repertoire that the lead (Lois Smith) favoured as a young musician.

As a female composer she is flying the flag for equality and quality, and makes a massive case for more inclusive production methods. Female composers made up just 7% of the top 500 grossing films of 2019, a shameful statistic that Levi and her colleagues are doing well to counter. Most recently Hildur Gudnadottir has made waves with her work on Chernobyl and her Oscar winning score for Joker, making her the first woman to win Best Score since Anne Dudley for The Full Monty in 1997. Levi herself has a handful of high profile nominations including two from BAFTA (Under The Skin, Jackie) and an Oscar nod (Jackie). However, it is somewhat indicative of the top award panels’ tastes that her most celebrated work is that which is scored most traditionally.

Her next project is Janicza Bravo’s Zola. A preposterously chaotic film based on a viral twitter thread that chronicled a road trip by two strippers. The larger than life story spiralled from casual sex work into a kidnapping, shooting and a dramatic suicide attempt and has been picked up by a24/Sony, currently due for release commercially in the summer.

The Summer of Reeves

’67 was the summer of love, ’77 the summer of Sam. Sometimes there are ideas or people that represent a particular moment in time. Keanu Reeves was one such man, centre stage in an unusual summer

Photography Daniel Jackson, GQ

Summer 2019 will be remembered for many reasons. Record breaking heat all over Europe, Boris Johnson reaching number 10, the first image of a black hole and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”, but Reeves stands above them all in having had a stellar season.

Long thought of as an odd man outside of a film set, his refusal to play the celebrity game has made him an abnormality for someone of such high profile. The face of many popular films and franchises of the last few decades; Bill and Ted, Point Break, Speed, The Matrix and more recently John Wick, Reeves has had a consistent career that most would envy. Controversy free, wholesome and respected.

Last year would see that profile raised in a snowballing style, beginning in March with the rescue of his fellow passengers when a flight they were on performed an emergency landing in Bakersfield, CA. He then arranged for a van to take the stranded passengers and himself to their Los Angeles terminus, chatting and mixing with them along the way.

Between this and Warner Brothers’ late August announcement of a 4th Matrix film, Reeves set the world alight with wholesome spontaneity and the world responded in kind. But quite how it happened was impossible to forecast and in true internet culture fashion, didn’t make much sense either.

The Matrix Reloaded, 2003

Shortly after the first annual “KeanuCon” closed with a screening of John Wick 2, Reeves’ 2019 box office success was May’s hotly anticipated John Wick 3, which proved a hit critically and financially. The series, directed by his former stunt double Chad Stahelski offers a stylised take on the revenge thriller, which has given Reeves – now in his mid-50’s, an action renaissance. Wick is already something of a cult favourite though while the series lacks the scale or lore of the likes of MCU or Star Wars, it has consistently evolved without alienating its fanbase or selling out – the success of which has merited a fourth film currently in production.

While Reeves is far from the first actor to branch out into video games, his appearance at E3 in June was one to remember. While introducing Cyberpunk 2077 – an upcoming VR game he was secretly involved in, Reeves could barely get a word in at the adoring crowd. After he described the game’s graphic capabilities as breathtaking an audience member shouted “you’re breathtaking”, which he quickly relayed back and the crowd exploded with delight. This humorous exchange spawned a meme that became the go-to compliment for the summer, joining the many other internet quirks about the actor, almost exclusively in positive contexts such as defending animals à la John Wick or that he’s possibly some sort of philanthropic vampire.

There has long been a myth that he donated over 70% of his earnings from The Matrix’s sequels to their special effects teams, a sensationalised story that says more in falsehood than it does in truth. Even though this story is exaggerated, he has always been generous with money and while his vampiric side is questionable, his philanthropy is not. He anonymously runs a private cancer research trust and regularly dedicates time and money to SCORE (Spinal Cord Opportunities for Rehabilitation Endowment), a charity which promotes physical activity for people seriously injured during sport.

He went through a particularly rough patch between 1999 and the early 2000s when his partner Jennifer Syme gave birth to a stillborn daughter then died in a road traffic accident 16 months later. Around this time, his sister was also diagnosed with Leukaemia. Other difficulties of his earlier life such as growing up without a consistent father figure and the death of close friend River Phoenix might break a weaker man, but apparently not Reeves.

Point Break (1991)

His humility in the face of such dark subjects came up on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he caught the audience off-guard by eloquently answering an off-hand question about what happens when we die, to which Colbert could only shake Reeves’ hand at such a response. Ironically, he was there to promote John Wick 3, which would require an MIT grad to calculate the death toll of. But fiction is fiction and though Reeves is a crack shot onscreen and off, in his personal life he is a peaceful man who has expressed respect for Buddhism and a belief in God.

On a more child-friendly note, last summer he also lent his voice to motorcycle stuntman “Duke Caboom”, paying tribute to his native Canada as one of the new characters cooked up for Toy Story 4. Caboom’s role as a self-doubting stuntman was somewhat fitting for Reeves, as motorcycles have always been a big part of his life. In a bumper campaign for GQ he gave a tour of his motorcycle company warehouse (Arch Motorcycles) and discussed his personal collection for a video before gracing their April cover in a striking monochrome shoot for Saint Laurent. His long, slightly greying hair evidently not a problem to the fashion world – a physical change addressed in the new Bill & Ted sequel, set nearly thirty years after their last outing in 1991.

The long awaited sequel, Bill & Ted Face The Music finally started production last July with particularly odd photos of an unrecognisable Reeves on set still surfacing in early December. The story will address the duo, now struggling with middle-aged life and fatherhood and will be written by the same team of the first two films. The actual announcement was not exactly a surprise, as a long-teased project for some time, but there has been a welcome response to the re-airing of these characters who have been dormant for an entire generation. The reappearance of their peaceful dude-ness may well be a distracting antidote for us in these increasingly bleak times.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, 1991

August’s announcement of The Matrix 4 however, was a genuine surprise, and a bit of a head scratcher too. A strange announcement with very little detail which left many wondering if more Matrix content was really merited? Or just a sign of these reboot and franchise-heavy times. For now, fans hold their breath with the memory of The Matrix series’ diminishing quality in the back of their minds and only one of the Wachowskis signed on. It could go either way, but it’s worth remembering that no one expected much from the original Matrix film when it was released in 1999 either.

Nostalgia has shone very favourably on Reeves, with these iconic roles of Ted Logan and Neo representing very different stages within his career, yet both to be relevant again decades after their debuts. The fact that these roles could not be more different highlights his versatility as a performer and probably why he has such a broad, cross generational fan base – one which has seen him crowned “the internet’s soul mate” by TIME magazine and described as “entering his icon era” by GQ when he posed for their aforementioned cover. Both quotes coming within weeks of each other – and no one disputing them.

Contemporary to the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and many others of disrepute, he is an industry role model that many younger actors would do well to emulate (see “hover hands“).  A steady stream of box office hits and a few off the beaten track forays – to varying degrees of success – Reeves is a pretty sure thing and has apparently reached the level of cultural recognition that goes beyond cinema. The media spotlight is fleetingly kept on the same person, but considering the many pots that Reeves currently has boiling, he’ll no doubt continue to be a fixture on our screens and depending on their successes, may have another stint in the sun yet.

The Issue of Adapting Tragedy

Netflix’s optioning of the Wild Boars’ rescue from a Thai cave system prompts questions as to how we still make entertainment based on real-life tragedy

As you read these words, Netflix are currently funding a project based on the successful rescue of 12 schoolboys and their coach from a flooding Thai cave network – 2018 the summer story that gripped the world during their full two week ordeal. Yet the fact of the matter is, this film existed in some form from the moment the cave first flickered onto news channels across the globe, thanks to the entertainment world’s instinctual reaction to quantify these events on the big screen.

There are some directors who are drawn to such challenges repeatedly. In late 2018 Paul Greengrass made a film for Netflix (July 22) about the slaying of 77 people on a Norwegian beach in 2011, in addition to his previous works covering United Flight 93 (2006), Bloody Sunday (2002) and the murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999). Similarly, Peter Berg has recently found success making films based on American tragedies. First turning the Boston Marathon bombing and then the Deepwater Horizon disaster into films, both released in 2016 no less.  

Though interestingly, what Berg has on his side that Greengrass doesn’t, is locality. Berg is an American director, directing Americans on American stories – his task is simple, or simple enough. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone or do anything he wouldn’t have done otherwise. In a sense, he is part of the greater story. When making July 22, Greengrass, a Brit, made a point of filming in Norway, as well as hiring Norwegian actors and crew. Did he have to do this? No. But the fact that he did suggests it’s something that looms large when taking on these projects as an outsider, where each move is significantly more calculated. Not so much in terms of accuracy, but in terms of respect and responsibility.

There is a massive industry-wide effort of tying these films to their ethnic or nationalistic core, as stories that really strike at the heart of a nation are seldom taken out of it. The reigns of the aforementioned Netflix project have been handed to John Chu, an Asian American director of blockbuster pedigree, and Nattawut Poonpiriya, an up and coming Thai director. Is this a coincidence? Of course not. But it is interesting that this is something the industry clearly deems necessary to legitimise their efforts. There are no laws dictating how adaptations should be handled – they’re only entertainment – but taking the story away from its people seems to be a huge faux pas, as John Chu tweeted to assure there will be no whitewashing of the cast in his version of the film.

It will be interesting to see how these films handle the death of Saman Kunan, rescue diver and former Thai Navy SEAL who heroically passed away delivering oxygen bottles in the cave system. As the only fatality, Kunan’s death represents the distinction between this being a truly miraculous event infinitely easier to sell, against one where a man lost his life volunteering to save children he did not know. As such, his death is significant and should feature in these films, but to what extent may vary depending on the tone of the films.

Films like Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, while terrifying and provocative, ruffle fewer feathers because they aren’t rooted in any specific truths. No names or locations need be changed and no families are consulted before release. While censorship may prove an issue for them, they need not deal with anything the average horror studio hasn’t dealt with a thousand times. The safest options for adapting tragedy tend to be documentaries, yet depending how sharp the narrative knife, controversy can still be found. Bowling For Columbine kicked up some significant shit and Going Clear and Leaving Neverland have been two of the most significant films of the last few years.

The public will always have their say, as last year, Irish filmmaker Vincent Lamb found himself on the wrong side of over 260,000 signatures petitioning to have his film about the murder of James Bulger boycotted. Despite this, Detainment, the 30 minute independent film played at Cannes and the Odense Film Festival, won the latter’s 2018 Grand Prix. It has been shown in France, Poland, Greece, Ireland, Denmark, Austria and the US – but crucially not the UK, and streaming it on Amazon Prime, while available elsewhere, is blocked in the UK. Detainment may have received critical acclaim internationally, but domestically it does not even warrant an audience. So shocking is the story even 26 years later, that it is not considered entertaining in the country it is most relevant. 

While Netflix’s adaptation is arguably the biggest scale production about the rescue, Tom Waller’s The Cave has already finished shooting and due for release in November. Once again we find a common thread, as Waller, half Thai, has found himself at the helm of that particular project. These are just two of at least six films currently being overseen by the Thai government, and all of which in some form or another seem to be compensating the families of the children involved. Just as Greengrass donated 10% from United 93’s opening weekend to a victims’ memorial and Spielberg used the profits from Schindler’s List to fund several documentaries on the Holocaust, these films usually have to give something back to be fairly acknowledged. Be that money, profile, or both.  

In light of the recent shootings in El Paso, Gilroy and Dayton, Universal Pictures have decided to shelve The Hunt, a film about strangers being hunted for sport by the rich elite, but in all reality, this is more than likely a temporary measure. Following 9/11, Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage was pushed back 4 months, Eli Roth’s Death Wish was pushed back 5 months after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting and Phone Booth was pushed backed 5 months after the Beltway sniper attacks. With that in mind, we will more than likely be able to sit down in a cinema and watch The Hunt with popcorn in hand sometime early next year.

Seemingly the world is yet to see a disaster that it is unwilling to make an adaptation of. The holocaust, Chernobyl, 9/11, Hillsborough, famine, the troubles, the Titanic, the Armenian and Rwandan genocides – all apparently fair game. Plight sells and all it takes is a sufficient amount of time and emotional distance before we are willing to engage with these topics as outright entertainment. In this age of almost instant entertainment the trend is pretty well locked in, but how far it’ll go depends heavily on how we as a society react to these ventures and when we decide that a line has truly been crossed.

Illustration Thomas Durham