- Canadian Essential: Chosen by the Amazon.ca editors as one of the 50 Canadian Essentials in DVD.
To celebrate that they were quitting the 'god---n impossible' life on the road after 16 years, The Band gave a farewell concert in San Francisco, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. To join them, they invited artists who represented the rich and varied array of styles that went into their musical melting pot: Rock'n' Roll, Blues, Folk, New Orleans R'n'B, Country, Gospel, Rockabilly ... who would sing their own numbers backed up by them. They, noblesse oblige, brought in their first mentor, Ronnie Hawkings, a man who sure knows how to entice a teenager into joining a rock'n'roll band, and Bob Dylan, of course, (who had just released Blood on the Tracks and Desire), Joni Mitchell (The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira her most recent albums), Neil Young (Tonight's the Night and Zuma were his latest solo efforts), Muddy Waters (who would release Hard Again, his best late day work the following year), and many, many more I have no space here to mention. All top-notch and in their musical prime. Well, and Neil Diamond.
The result was a concert that can only be described as dazzling and magical. The Band do ecstatic versions of some of their best songs and the guest appereances are also amazing, Van Morrison does what's probably the best version ever of Caravan, Muddy Waters proves why he is the M-A-N, chile, The Staple Singers send a shiver up your spine that can rend you comatose for life, and Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton bring the house down with their scorching six-strings and then they burn the ruins to ashes. All this just to quote a few. But I have a minor complaint here, the movie only features one song (The Shape I'm in) sung by Richard Manuel, one of the most soulful and moving singers that ever walked the face of the earth. This gives the newcomer a somewhat off-balanced account of how vocal duties were shared in The Band, as one can deduct that Levon Helm sang almost everything with a little help from his friends Rick and Richard. And Levon is darn good, but Richard is the shhh ....sheer top of the heap.
Casting these trifles aside, the movie is a masterpiece. Direcrted by a Martin Scorsese in a state of grace (those were the days of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), and beautifully darkly photographed by Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Michael W. Watkins (later X-Files direcror and producer), and Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate), this was to be more than your average rock concert documentary.
The filmmakers were set on an ambitious goal, to show what it is and what does it feel to play great music. And they achieved it in such a way that we mere mortals get to feel what it is to be up there on the stage, enraptured, playing that great music to an enthusiastic and receptive crowd. The featurette that is one of the DVD bonus add-ons shows how Scorsese had these sheets of paper with the lyrics of each song to be played written down in one column, the main moments of each performance in another (when a singer would join in the chorus, or the guitar solo was to begin, or a special part of the lyric would be sung, etc), and the camera shots and movements for each moment in a third column. This is called making the best of the means of your art instead of just doing anything that would do, and it shows on the screen in a way that leaves you breathless. Watching Scorsese frantically directing the movie like a tightrope walker with no net to fall down on must've been worth another documentary. They had only one take for everything, mind that, and I guess that's what might have attracted such a brave and audacious director as Scorsese: Jumping into the unstopping swirling midst of life and trying to extract art out of it with just spotlights and cameras. Souns enticing, isnt't it? And for no money nor any promises of getting more you-know-what than Frank Sinatra.