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On Video: Friends of the Band

Caravan of stars makes restored 'Last Waltz' one for the ages

Friday, May 24, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

There aren't a lot of legends that could live up to the hype surrounding this reissue of "The Last Waltz."

Rolling Stone -- having written it off at the time as both unworthy of a second listen and "a glittering but empty rite of passage" -- now insists the soundtrack is the greatest live recording ever. Which it isn't. And despite the recent nod in Rolling Stone, it's not the best rock movie ever, either.

But it's not an empty rite of passage, the Band going out with a bang in November 1976 surrounded by such heavyweight admirers as Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris and unlikely guest Neil Diamond.

It's a long goodbye. The film, restored on DVD ( ; Rhino), is an hour and 57 minutes long. The new, expanded CD boxed set ( ; Rhino) is a good deal longer. But you never really feel that length on either format.

Dylan's songs alone would go a long way toward explaining what the fuss is all about. The 4-CD edition's bonus tracks include an emotional reading of "Hazel," rounding out a Dylan mini-set that also finds the greatest backing band he's ever known fleshing out intense performances of "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)," "Forever Young" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" (by far the most intense performance of the whole event).

And Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," of course, provides the backdrop for an all-star photo op, with Ronnie Wood and Ringo popping up to join the other stars in a moment that, if nothing else, isn't nearly as corny and uneventful as the "We Are the World" finale at Live Aid.

Other guest-star highlights range from "Such A Night" with Dr. John and "Helpless" with Neil Young to Van Morrison leading the Band in "Caravan" and Ronnie Hawkins reuniting with his backing band to rock out on "Who Do You Love."

Among the guest-star highlights new to this CD reissue are a Muddy Waters-led "Caldonia," Eric Clapton's "All Our Past Times" and rehearsal takes of "Caravan" and "Such A Night." And then, of course, you've got the guests of honor, whose spirited, soulful performance at their send-off was enough to guarantee that this is one band that would not soon be forgotten.

Reviving not only the sound but the spirit of early rock 'n' roll while honoring its roots in country, blues and gospel, the Band revisits many of the most inspired moments of its classic albums here, including "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Shape I'm In" "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Ophelia" and "Stagefright," in addition to such previously unreleased essentials (available now on CD only) as "This Wheel's On Fire," "Acadian Driftwood," "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Weight" (in concert, not the version with the Staple Singers).

You'll also find a fair amount of less inspired moments on the box set -- Bobby Charles on the tepid stroll through "Down South In New Orleans," way too many Joni Mitchell songs for anyone who doesn't worship Joni Mitchell and some aimless jams.

At least you get to see who's jamming in the jams included in the special features of the DVD (in addition to audio commentary as the film is running, outtakes, photos and a featurette about the film). But even then, there's nothing on the level of the Dylan mini-set. Or Muddy Waters squeezing every drop of innuendo out of "Mannish Boy" in a performance so cool even Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm can't keep from grinning ear to ear. Or Robertson and Eric Clapton trading leads, the camera capturing the contrast in their styles as it cuts from the effortless grace of Clapton's playing to the scrappy, emotional live-wire picking of Robertson.

So yeah, the film holds up, although it's kind of ludicrous the way it starts off with a notice in bold letters that "THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD," as though it's, like, the Stooges or the Who or, you know, something that would benefit from all that extra volume. OK, maybe it should go up to 11 for the time it takes to bang your head to "Baby Let Me Follow You Down." But mostly, this is more the sort of music that inspired production designer Boris Leven to borrow curtains, chandeliers and other props from a San Francisco Opera production of "La Traviata," proof that rock 'n' roll could grow old with the grace and dignity of any other art form.

The film was directed by Martin Scorsese. And I have to say, I've never seen a better-looking concert film. But to his credit, you can't really feel Scorsese here -- unless, of course, you count the interviews he does or those opening shots of the camera cruising down the mean streets of San Francisco. Few, if any, of the interviews or anecdotes are all that entertaining or revealing, but the concert footage can be pretty damn electrifying, even if the fashion casualties are now the stuff of legends -- Ronnie Wood in some absurd cartoon tuxedo shirt or Dr. John in giant Foster Grants, beret and pink bow-tie.

And who broke all the mirrors in Van Morrison's dressing room? His "Caravan" is a truly impassioned performance when you hear it on the soundtrack. When you see it in the movie, though, you've gotta deal with Morrison's T-shirted gut hanging out of a rhinestone-studded polyester leisure suit and the sight of him doing high kicks in that outfit like a chunky little Rockette.

But in many ways, that was the '70s. And for better and only occasionally worse, this movie is a relic of that age, when rock 'n' roll could safely argue that at least it had a reason for taking itself so seriously.

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