Directed by a fan of the musicians involved in the film, The Last Waltz is considered one of the greatest musical films, if not the greatest, ever produced in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It features the last concert given by a group of musicians who referred to themselves as “The Band”. Hence the name The Last Waltz was given to the title of the film. Besides the concert, the viewers are enlightened with the life experiences of these musicians through the interviews dispersed between the scenes of the concert.
In this way, the movie is created as an informative film since the interviews inform the audience of the background information of The Band. The Last Waltz is a unique documentary because of its exceptional techniques incorporated into the film. One of them was the fact that it was decided with a storyboard. Instead of just recording down the key components needed for the film right on the spot, the director Martin Scorsese had spent time prior to the filming to carefully plot down his ideas/visions of how he wanted to record the scenes and how some of the shots he hoped to accomplish during the concert were to be positioned.
Thus, parts of the documentary were scripted. The viewers themselves were able to see that occurring in the film. For example, the very first scene of the movie was set in a room that had a pool table where the musicians appeared to be having fun and the atmosphere displayed was very relaxing. In doing so, it conveys to the viewers a feeling of those times in people’s busy lives where they had concluded to sparing some joyful moments with the ones close to them.
On a different level, a part of The Band’s life was exposed to the audience—their days having fun and it symbolizes for the what life is like in the music business career. The scene draws to an end as one of the members of The Band took a shot at the balls on the table. The action itself leads to the starting of the concert where the group was walking to their positions on the stage. Another example may be found near the end of the film where the director himself stared directly into the camera, as if he was waiting for the cameraman to be prepared in recording down what was about to occur.
In the film, the director has introduced the technique of tracking shots for places presented in the scenes. These slow moving long shots communicate to the viewers of the life back in the 1960s. At the same time, it captures the voice of the ‘60’s counter culture. Clearly, in viewing the shots of the town, the audience was provided with evidence of their lifestyles. Some were dressed in the Hippies fashion. There were many people cuddling in groups, drinking and smoking on the streets as if they were living the time of their life.
The frequent exposures of these drugs/cigarettes in the shots and many scenes throughout the documentary may not have been as acceptable in today’s films. On a side note, the music they listened to was closely linked to the musical influences in which The Band had drawn their music from. Although much of the influences had come from the music genre of country, there were other ones exhibited such as the blues (the group had invited Muddy Waters, a legendary blues musician, as one of their guests for the concert) and folk music.
The shootings of the film were considered more artistic than that of the typical styles accounted in a documentary. The lightings it presented were far beyond the usual expectations of a documentary. There were scenes where pools of light were alternating in the background of the stage as the musicians jammed on with their music at the front of the stage. In contrast, there were other scenes where there was only a ray of light reflecting at an angle of one musician and shadows were cast over the rest of his face.
Towards the end of the film, the shots had almost formed a pattern in which it would commence from the back of a musician coming on stage, moves to the shadowing side shot of their face, and then a full shot of their entire body with an increase in the brightness of the light from the front of the stage. Shots from the front of the stage create the illusion of being included in the audience below while shots from the back of the performers create the opposite (the audience is provided with the views from the performer’s perspective of the concert setting).
Some scenes became more appealing and demanding of the audience’s attention when most sections of the screen had been blackened and the shot of the performer was cornered towards the bottom or the side. This way, the audience is demanded to pay close attention to that small section of the scene at the corner so that they could focus on what was happening in the scene before the camera zoomed in for an expansion of the scene’s size to full screen. The camera had also used zooming in filming the concert where there would be extreme close up shots of the performer’s face and far away distant shots of the entire stage.
Another technique that may have attracted the audience’s attention was the use of blurring the camera lens. The lens would be blurred for a brief moment before it became focused later on. The camera’s movements throughout the film were varied. It didn’t always follow the usual directions from the left to the right or from the top to the bottom. Instead, there was circular motion handled by the cameraman from time to time as it moved from right to left of the performer. As a result, the viewers are given a continuous look of the performer’s body.
There were also shots of the subjects in the film from bottom to the top, which would mean for a guitarist, their instrument would be exposed to the audience before they were presented with the face of the performer. Dramatic pauses were included in scenes involving interviews of The Band. For example, there was a scene in which Rick Danko was questioned on his musical journey with The Band. During the scene, the use of the shadow and pause on the musician helped to emphasize his deep thoughts on the topic as he lowered his head to think and remember his experiences.
Evidently, while the camera techniques were excellent, the editing of the film needed some improvement. There were sections in the film where cuts of the scene were obvious to the audience. Therefore, in the playing of these scenes, the flow wouldn’t be considered very smooth to the eyes. At one point in the movie, there was the scene where all of a sudden it became unfocused and it was clear that the reason was because the cameraman was trying adjusting his lens. In today’s film standards that section would have been edited with much care.
However, because the time of the unclear section was so brief, if the viewers weren’t watching closely, it would have been easily skipped. Overall, the film presents a realistic look/presentation of The Band. In other words, considering the fact that the director of the film is a fan of The Band, the film itself wasn’t presented in a biased point of view. Scorsese took time for his film production and he captured the true essence of a musician’s lifestyle through the interviews where group described the struggles they had to endure during the sixteen years on the road in order to arrive at the peak of their career.
His notion of inserting a scene of a couple waltzing in the early section of the film and the return of the melody the couple played by The Band at the end gives a sense of completeness to the film. In addition, it ties in with The Band’s choice of location for their starting and ending performances, both of which were at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
Work Cited: The Last Waltz. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1978. DVD.