Criterion pulls out all the stops on “The Last Waltz” 4K UHD


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson sing “Up on Cripple Creek” during The Band’s final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Theater on Thanksgiving night, 1976.


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“THE LAST WALTZ: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray; 1978; PG for profanity and smoking

Best extra: Commentary with director Martin Scorsese and The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson recorded two decades ago









CRANK-UP the sound – it’s time to celebrate The Band’s historic farewell performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz.” The uncompressed six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack and new 4K master from the original 35mm camera negative, plus Dolby Vision HDR grading, puts viewers right inside San Francisco’s Winterland Theater on Thanksgiving night, 1976.

During the commentary he shares with guitarist Robbie Robertson, Scorsese recalls how the rock documentary signaled the end of an era with its all-star lineup featuring Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr and other greats.

In her enclosed essay, New Yorker writer Amanda Petrusich says, ‘The Last Waltz’ is a concert film about the “euphoria of live music.” The Band was “brittle, tired, hung-up” after nearly two decades of playing together, starting in Toronto backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in the 1950s and later with Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s.


(1) Robbie Robertson, lead guitar, vocals (2) Rick Danko, bass, vocals (3) Levon Helm, drums, vocals (4) Richard Manuel, piano, vocals. (5) Garth Hudson, keyboard and saxophone. (6) “The Last Waltz” premiered on April 26, 1978. (7) The Winterland Theater stage was designed by film art director Boris Leven, who mounted three chandeliers overhead and used set pieces from the San Francisco Opera company.




By the late ‘60s, The Band had developed a “near-perfect” recipe of rock, soul, and blues, releasing a string of classic records: “Music from Big Pink” (1968), “The Band” (1969), both earning five stars on the Allmusic.com website, “Stage Fright” (1970), and “The Basement Tapes” (1975) recorded with Bob Dylan. “They spent those years playing, playing, playing,” Petrusich writes. Then decided “The Last Waltz” would be their swan song.

A new interview between Scorsese and Rolling Stone senior editor David Fear details the director’s affection for the group. “I still to this day … I don’t know how to categorize it [The Band]. We never quite heard a sound like that coming at that time. It seems to come out of something deep in the past of America. Yet, it seemed to be immediate and contemporary.”


“The Band’s music was full of characters and stories in little narratives. You would have one character, but he’s sung by four different voices.” — Martin Scorsese, director



(1) Director Martin Scorsese edited backstage and post-concert interviews throughout the nearly two-hour film, as Robbie Robertson lights up. (2) Rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins waves his hat to cool off Robertson’s guitar solo during “Who do you Love?” (3&4) Neil Young sings “Helpless.”





Scorsese’s longtime friend and poet Jim Carroll called drummer Levon Helm, whose vocals held a soulful, country vibe, “The only drummer who could make you cry.” Helms had grown up on a farm in Arkansas listening to The Grand Ole Opry, blues, and R&B on a clear-channel AM station out of Nashville. While organist Garth Hudson “took the music to another level – that had a celestial sound,” says the director.

The Band moved to upstate New York in ’67, renting a pink, four-bedroom house in Woodstock and setting up its legendary basement recording studio. Living in the countryside changed their sound, said Robertson in an excerpt from his 2016 biography featured in the booklet. “Don’t know if it was because we were living in the mountains, but mountain music started to find its way deep into our vocabulary.”

By 1976, Robertson wanted to spend more time with his two-year old son; after sixteen years on the road, he had had enough. “Twenty years is unthinkable.” A few months before the final concert, pianist Richard Manuel fractured his neck in a boating accident in Texas. The mishap became the final nail in the coffin to the group's stepping back from the road. “The choice to stop was agreed by everyone,” Robertson says.

The 5,000 seat Winterland Theater would be The Band’s final send-off, the location of their first gig in 1969. Scorsese and Robertson met for dinner in Beverly Hills, since the director was filming the musical “New York, New York” at the time on MGM sound stages with Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. The two had met previously in 1973 at a screening of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Robertson was determined to only work with a director who “had a special relationship with music.”



MGM Soundstage

(1-3) The Band filmed two songs on an MGM soundstage. The Staple Singers join The Band during “The Weight” with its opening lyrics: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead.” (4&5) The country song “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris.




They agreed “The Last Waltz” would be a mix of concert footage and interviews. Originally, they planned to film in black and white on 16mm, and then upgrade to Super 16, except, ultimately, that wasn’t good enough. They finally went with 35mm for that theatrical movie quality, and to be filmed on six rolling cameras, with five running continuously.

Everything was big that night including feeding 4,000 pounds of turkey to the concertgoers, with the Berkeley Orchestra playing classical waltzes while everyone enjoyed dinner. Backstage held a smorgasbord from snacks to drugs.

The best performance was not captured on the Winterland stage, but at the MGM soundstage, with the Staple Singers joining The Band for their classic, “The Weight” with its opening lyrics: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead.” Robertson played a double-neck Gibson mandolin-guitar combo, and Pop Staples a Telecaster.

VIDEO

The original 35mm negative was scanned in 16-bit 4K, while a 35mm print was used as a color reference for the HDR grading. A good wash of natural film grain is present from start to finish – something that’s completely missing from Peter Jackson’s Disney+, three-part documentary of “The Beatles: Get Back.” Overall clarity is excellent, an obvious uptick over the 1080p version, which is also included. The colors are rich and saturated, especially during Van Morrison’s rendition of “Caravan,” while wearing a sparkly crimson vest and finishing with a wild kick on stage.

AUDIO

The striking six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack was remixed from the original two-inch, 24-track magnetic masters two decades ago under Robertson’s supervision. The soundstage has excellent bass, as well as full, rich vocals and highs.


(1) Neil Diamond joins the stage and sings “Dry Your Eyes.” (2) Joni Mitchell sings “Coyote.” (3) Blues musician Muddy Waters sings “Mannish Boy.” (4) Eric Clapton sings “Further Up the Road.” (5) Levon Helm took up acting after The Band disbanded and had roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980), “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Shooter” (2007). (6) Van Morrison kicks into action singing his classic “Caravan.”




EXTRAS:

The 4K disc includes two commentaries. The second track showcases band members Helm, Hudson, journalists Jay Cocks and Greil Marcus, producers Jonathan Taplin and Steven Prince, cinematographer Michael Chapman, the music producers, and performers Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins, and Mavis Staples. The best is the one with Scorsese and Robertson, who recall that it was unimaginable not to invite Van Morrison. “He was one of my favorite singer-songwriters and a great friend. He ripped it up. There was something about his music, our music; we felt it was cut from the same cloth.” By the time Dylan hit the stage, “The audience had seen so much and so many people and surprises … they looked stunned.”


The 2002 “Revisiting” documentary chronicles the making-of. “It was this crazy desire to get it [the last concert] on film,” Scorsese says. The special night came together in just a few weeks without a budget or contract - and without a payment for Scorsese. “We were doing this by the seat of our pants,” Robertson says. Scorsese convinced art director Boris Leven (“West Side Story” “Sound of Music”), who was working on “New York, New York,” to design the stage, in which he mounted three chandeliers overhead and used set pieces from the San Francisco Opera company. They decided not to use any cutaways for the audience; everything would focus on the performances. Only the reverse shots from behind The Band would show the crowd.


“What we caught on film – I do think we caught pretty much what I felt onstage. The cameramen were able to get the electricity, the presence, the excitement, and the extraordinary physical achievement of creating music on stage.” — Martin Scorsese



— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1) Bob Dylan was the final guest artist and he opens with “Forever Young.” (2&3) Everyone joins Dylan to sing “I Shall be Released.”



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