Blu-Ray Review: The Last Waltz (1978)- Criterion Collection

Aaron ConnBlu-Ray Review, Movies, MusicLeave a Comment

The Last Waltz Criterion Collection

The Last Waltz Criterion CollectionWhile best known for directing NYC-based dramas and gangster/mafia epics, director Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the world of rock n roll music. Not only has he used the music in his movies but he’s also directed a handful of movies about the musicians. The Last Waltz, Scorsese’s first dip in the waters of rock music, is still considered by many to be one of the greatest rock movies ever made. The movie, originally released in 1978, documents Canadian rock group the Band and their legendary last concert on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. With a movie this culturally significant, it makes sense why the movie is now part of the Criterion Collection. Just this last month, the home video company re-released the movie on Blu-ray and 4K Blu Ray. As to be expected with Criterion Collection releases, there’s a bunch of bonus features- both old and new. While The Last Waltz  has been released a handful of time on home video, this just might be the best release of the movie thus far.

The Band group pictureThe Band were originally formed in the 1960s, originally under the name the Hawks. As a band, they served as the backing musicians to singer Ronnie Hawkins and later Bob Dylan. In 1968, the group decided to go off on their own and released their debut album Music from Big Pink. Compared to the psychedelic rock that was coming out around that point in time, the Band’s approach to the genre was different as they brought it back to its roots. The album, along with the group’s 1969 self-titled follow up, would go on to become critically acclaimed- nabbing hits along the way with “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” The group would continue into the 1970s, releasing several more albums with varying degrees of success. From time to time, they would accompany Bob Dylan for an album or two. However as the years went by, there were tensions within the group; along with some substance abuse. In 1976, it was decided the Band would play one last show together- a show that was held at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. While the group split after this, they would reunite in the 1980s (sans Robbie Robertson) and release several more albums. After the deaths of Richard Manuel in 1986 and Rick Danko in 1999, the Band ceased to be. Since Levon Helm’s passing in 2012, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson remain the two surviving members of the group.

The Movie
Last Waltz WinterlandAfter seeing Scorsese’s use of music in his movies (specifically Mean Streets from 1973), guitarist Robbie Robertson became interested in having the director work with the Band. The end result is what would become The Last Waltz, a documentary about the Band’s history and their final show. Throughout the movie, Scorsese see-saws back and forth between interviews with the group and performances from the concert. Robertson is noticeably front and center compared to the other members, which some of the band have criticized about the movie. If anything, we do get to hear from all five members- telling all kinds of stories about life on the road and how they all came together. However of the five members, Robertson seems to get the most screen time.

As for the performances, they are astounding. Even for a venue as small as Winterland, Scorsese and his crew are able to capture every part of that concert- giving the viewers an immersive experience. For the most part, it’s the Band playing a selection of their hits- with some of them sounding better than their studio counterparts. However, the Band weren’t the only ones at the show: they invited a slew of their friends, collaborators and influences to come out and jam with them. Ronnie Hawkins comes out early on in the movie performing a hearty rendition of “Who Do You Love”  while Neil Young follows shortly afterwards with the heavenly harmonies of “Helpless.” Between those two performances, the latter is particularly memorable as it’s known that Neil Young went out on stage with cocaine hanging out of his nose. Scorsese tried to edit it out by using rotoscope, which worked for the most part. However on high definition screens, you can now see a little glimmer of a white cocaine booger. Other notable guests include Joni Mitchell (“Coyote”), Muddy Waters (“Mannish Boy”), Eric Clapton (“Further on Up the Road”) and Bob Dylan (“Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released.”)

Last Waltz Mavis StaplesAlong with being interviewed outside of the concert, the group gives several performances on/in what look like studio/movie lots. It’s during these scenes where they play “The Weight” with the Staple Singers and later “Evangeline” with Emmylou Harris. Both song are absolute delights, with “The Weight” possibly being the better of the two. Something about Mavis Staples’ vocal delivery of the second verse and the chorus really add some soul to an already amazing (even if overplayed) song. With the mix of these performances and the interviews, The Last Waltz is fairly similar to Pink Floyd’s Live in Pompeii concert film: while the focus is around one event, there’s some things to accompany it in the form of interviews and additional performances. While I personally find myself preferring Pink Floyd’s film, The Last Waltz is on a much bigger scale and the end result pays off.

The Restoration

The Last Waltz was last released on Blu-ray in 2006, becoming one of the first movies ever released on the format. Now 15 years later, not only is the movie is once again on the format but it has been digitally restored. The original Blu-ray release was no slouch, offering a bright and fairly vivid picture. The new one from Criterion, however, looks even better.

Pictured here are several screenshots from both Blu-ray releases. Please note that none of these shots are exact matches but they are from the same scenes nevertheless.

Last Waltz pic comp 1

Neil Young scene (Top: OG Blu ray, Bottom: Criterion)

Last Waltz pic comp 2

Ronnie Hawkins scene (Top: OG Blu ray, Bottom: Criterion)

Last Waltz pic comp 3

Group interview (Top: OG Blu ray, Bottom: Criterion)

Last Waltz pic comp 4

Opening titles (Top: OG Blu ray, Bottom: Criterion)

While the older Blu-ray picture does look brighter in some ways, the Criterion’s color palette looks more accurate. On top of that, I’ve noticed a lot of scratches and dirt on the original’s picture.

As for audio, you have three options: the 5.1 DTS-HD mix, the 1978 2.0 surround mix and the uncompressed stereo mix from the 2001-02 DVD release.

Bonus Features
The band the last waltzThe supplements included on the Blu-ray vary from older material to new additions. Amongst the special features are:

– Two audio commentaries from Scorsese, the Band and others
– Revisiting The Last Waltz from 2002
– A 12-minute outtake
– 1978 interview with Scorsese and Robertson
– Trailer and TV Spot
– 31 minute Scorsese interview, conducted by Rolling Stone writer David Fear

Amongst these extras, the 1978 interview and the David Fear interview are new for this release. Everything else is taken from previous DVD releases, specifically the 2002 DVD. The Blu-ray also includes an essay written Amanda Petrusich from The New Yorker.

Overall, the Criterion Collection’s release of The Last Waltz is the definitive home video release of the movie. However, it’s not without some minor imperfections. The movie, while a classic, does drag out in parts and becomes repetitive. There could’ve been a little more added to the bonus features but at this point, I’m nit picking. If you love The Last Waltz, do yourself a favor and get this new release.

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Aaron ConnBlu-Ray Review: The Last Waltz (1978)- Criterion Collection