Some of the greatest musical artists of the 20th century joined The Band for its farewell performance in 1976, and lucky for us, director Martin Scorsese caught every moment on film. More than 5 years later, The Last Waltz remains not only one of the all-time great concert movies, but also a terrific time capsule, and Criterion honors it with an exceptional 4K restoration, room-shaking audio, and a fine array of extras. The Last Waltz is a concert for the ages and it comes very Highly Recommended.
[Excerpt from our The Last Waltz - 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Review]
"And that's just what the final live performance of The Band turned out to be. The legendary event took place more than 45 years ago on November 25, 1976, at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, but thanks to the vision of both guitarist Robbie Robertson (who had an inkling the concert would be special and wanted to memorialize it on film) and director Martin Scorsese (who shot the performance in a fresh and exciting manner), it can be enjoyed forever. With guest appearances by an array of icons, including Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Ronnie Wood, and the great Muddy Waters, The Last Waltz stands as not only a tribute to a fine rock group but also a testament to an entire musical era.
Would The Band be remembered at all if it wasn't for this captivating film? And would the film wield as much impact without the participation of so many elite performers? That's all open to debate. What's certain is The Last Waltz changed the way concert movies were made by bringing the cameras up on stage with the musicians and removing the barriers that separate the audience from the show. The result is an intimate experience peppered with visceral moments that help us feel the music as well as hear it.
Anyone who's followed my HDD reviews over the years knows I'm a shameless Scorsese fanboy, but despite my deep affection for the director's work and the movie's stellar reputation, I had never seen The Last Waltz prior to this viewing. That's largely because I wasn't at all familiar with The Band or their music, so wasn't much interested in watching them perform a two-hour concert. I also didn't realize such an illustrious lineup of guest artists collaborated on many of the songs. Shame on me for my ignorance, but only a few minutes into the movie, Scorsese turned that ignorance into bliss. His meticulous direction, which intrudes without being intrusive, weaves the music, performers, and excitement of this once-in-a-lifetime gathering into a seamless whole that results in not just a thrilling musical experience, but a dazzling cinematic one as well."
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Criterion edition of The Last Waltz arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page fold-out booklet featuring an essay by critic Amanda Petrusich, a couple of black-and-white photos, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track and LPCM stereo track are also included. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music and interview clips immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "This new 4K digital restoration was created from a scan of the 35 mm original camera negative made in 16-bit 4K resolution...A 35 mm print courtesy of Sikelia Productions was used as a color reference." Like the 4K UHD transfer, the resulting 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer maintains the organic feel of the event while presenting a gloriously crisp image that features vivid hues, excellent shadow delineation, and top-notch contrast. Grain is evident, as it should be, but it never compromises clarity. The texture is more evident in the cinéma vérité interview segments than the concert itself, but it adds an essential earthiness to this rockumentary that heightens its impact.
Deep blacks anchor the picture, shafts of white light from a single spot are well defined, and vibrant reds, blues, and greens provide colorful accents. The dark, theatrical lighting, much of it tinted red, lends the image a moody quality, but fine details like steam coming from the breath of the performers and tiny dust particles floating through the lights are perfectly rendered. Sharp close-ups showcase glistening sweat, facial stubble, pores, a scar on Rick Danko's temple, and the craftsmanship of various instruments, and not a single nick, mark, or errant scratch mar the pristine source material.
As might be expected, the 1080p rendering of The Last Waltz looks flatter and a bit duller than its 4K UHD counterpart. This is especially evident at the beginning of the film, as more evident grain and less clarity lends the picture a slightly fuzzy appearance, but once we get past the opening titles and settle into the meat-and-potatoes portion of the concert, the image stabilizes. Though there's less dimension and depth than the 4K UHD transfer and colors don't pop quite as much, this is still a very pleasing presentation that beautifully captures the performance.
I don't own the 2006 Blu-ray, but I can't imagine The Last Waltz looking any better in 1080p than it does here. If you're a fan of this seminal concert film, you'll likely want to upgrade to this Crtierion edition.
Three audio options are included on the disc, but the clear winner is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which the liner notes state "was remixed from the original two-inch 24-track magnetic masters in 2001 by Ted Hall at POP Sound in Santa Monica, California, under the supervision of Robbie Robertson. Stereo mixes and stems made by Robertson's mixer Dan Gellert and approved by Robertson were used in the creation of the 5.1 surround mix." Terrifically crisp, utterly clean, and brimming with superior fidelity and tonal depth, this track definitely should be "played loud" like the title card that precedes the movie recommends. The almost constant engagement of the rear speakers creates an immersive soundscape that showcases every instrument and highlights the purity that defines this vibrant track.
Guitar riffs, sax solos, bass accents, Neil Young's harmonica, even a trombone and tuba all make statements, while solid bass frequencies bring out all the bombast and virtuosity of Levon Helm's drum playing. Vocal tones are simultaneously rich and gritty, all the song lyrics are easy to understand, and sonic accents like the billiard balls smacking against each other in the opening shots, the enveloping applause after every song, and the random claps that punctuate quieter moments are wonderfully distinct. A wide dynamic scale embraces everything this track throws at it, distortion is absent, and no defects mar the crystalline nature of this stirring, sparkling audio rendering.
Two other audio options are included. The original 1978 2.0 surround mix is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and there's also a PCM stereo mix from 2001. I sampled both tracks and was impressed by the fidelity and dimensionality that distinguishes them, but if you want the most complete, most immersive, and most exciting aural experience, the 5.1 mix is definitely the way to go.
Criterion supplies a healthy supplemental package that contains the pair of extras from the 2006 Blu-ray release. For reviews of the audio commentary featuring Scorsese and Robertson, as well as the "Revisiting The Last Waltz" 2002 featurette, click here. For special features exclusive to this Criterion release, read on below.
One of the greatest concert movies ever made gets a terrific 4K restoration from Criterion. Martin Scorsese's expert direction helped The Last Waltz change the face of concert films, while the incredible array of talent assembled on one stage adds luster and excitement to the farewell performance of The Band. An immersive DTS-HD MA track complements the beautiful transfer, and a fine spate of supplements adds perspective and context to this classic rockumentary. Highly Recommended.