Friday, July 23, 2010

The Last Waltz

The Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz (1978) is split between being both a rock concert and a documentary on the 60s to mid 70s group The Band. Both Stephen E. Severn and Barry W. Sarchett have written compelling articles on The Last Waltz, each offering different takes on the film’s interior meaning. Where Severn’s article “Robbie Robertson’s Big Break: A Reevaluation of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz” focuses on producer and group guitarist Robbie Robertson, Sarchett’s “Rocumentary- As Metadocumentary: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz” examines the end of an era concerning 60s rock music. Though hardly opposing thematically, each article brings to light the complexities in the way The Last Waltz can be seen as symbolically meaning. Severn’s article is by far the most honest examination, where Sarchett’s feels loftier and pretentious trying to link its artistic merits to early Russian cinema. Severen continually hits the mark with his comparison of The Last Waltz to later Scorsese films such as The King Of Comedy (1982), The Color Of Money (1986), and Casino (1995). Severn makes a strong argument connecting these films through the theme “image may be manipulated as a means for eliminating risk.” Though stylistically I find The Last Waltz to be similar to other Scorsese films like Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990).

If Sarchett sees The Last Waltz as merely an exercise in nostalgia, then the films Mean Streets and Goodfellas work in similar ways. The music found in both films are based in 60s nostalgia. Each offers music that relate to a span of time, which defines the character’s generation. When Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) dances to “Mickey’s Monkey” by The Miracles, he’s relating to Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a youthful connection created through popular music. All the members of The Band aesthetically look like characters from Mean Streets as well. Each one plays pool, lives in debauchery, and expresses a sense of world-weariness.

Severn makes a great point of Scorsese’s obvious worship of Robbie Robertson, and the films attempt to showcase his insight and talent. In defense to Robbie Robertson, the one problem The Band faced in their career was a certain amount of invisibility. A band that backs the legendary Bob Dylan and offers a generic name will always have identity issues. Robbie Robertson is obviously the best looking and most articulating member, who happen to also be the lead guitarist. If The Band was to have a spokesman or leader than Robertson is to The Band, what Mick Jagger is to The Rolling Stones. Despite Levon Helm’s bitterness (and as talented as he may be) it is hard to make the leader someone who is hiding behind a drum kit. The identity insecurity is furthered by the concerts inclusion of continuous guests as lead singer.

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