I've always found concert films tough to review because, quite frankly, I'm always biased going in. C'mon now, if you aren't a fan of the The Band, the subject of Martin Scorsese's landmark 1978 documentary 'The Last Waltz,' are you really going to be reading this review? Sort of like Michael Moore's films, concert movies are probably the purest cinematic form of preaching to the converted. But the one exception is when you stumble across a concert doc that introduces you to an artist you are not familiar with, or whose music you haven't heard to any great extent. So it was with The Band and 'The Last Waltz,' as I honestly have probably heard only about two songs from the group in my entire lifetime.
Well, now I'm so glad I finally got around to watching 'The Last Waltz' and educating myself, because their music and legacy really is as fresh and relevant today as it was in the at the time of the 1978 farewell concert. Yes, the snapshot captured here is a world away from today's pop and rock landscape, terrain which has been irrevocably reshaped by technology and downloading and 'American Idol.' Back in the '70s, the industry was different. Artists weren't groomed by corporate conglomerates, and image mattered far less. Before MTV, few cared what a band looked like -- all that mattered was that the music kicked ass. Watching 'The Last Waltz' today, what is so striking is that these guys are just musicians, and nothing more. There's no big light show, no shameless self-aggrandizement, no Madonna nailed to a disco-ball cross preaching about world hunger while her t-shirts sell for $60 at the merchandising stand. Sure, I love today's pomp and circumstance and arch irony as much as the next music fan, but admittedly what has been lost in all that is the sheer joy of being able to sit in front of a stage and watch a bunch of guys just play. And play brilliantly.
Admittedly, as a documentary I didn't learn much from 'The Last Waltz.' Though Scorsese was a pioneer in helping to form the core aesthetic of the music docu-concert genre, which even today pretty much remains a series of musical segments interspersed with "revealing" between-song band banter, his approach is certainly no longer revolutionary. Nothing The Band says, nor in particular its leader Robbie Robertson, is all that informative or insightful. There is no band history presented, no timely footage of the political scene of the day or any archival interviews attempting to decipher the group's place in the then-current cultural landscape. Instead, we get little bits and pieces of what life is like in a band, along with some silly stories and more than a few nods and acknowledgements to the group's peers at the time. And though I like that Scorsese is audacious in how he chooses to juxtapose a particular song with a particular story (and really, what other director would open a concert film with the band's final encore of their final concert, then have them walk off stage and wave good-bye before the opening credits roll?), he is more partial observer than visual maestro. Scorsese tones down his usual bravura camerawork and just lets the show and the music speak for itself. And on that level, 'The Last Waltz' remains a relevant, essential document of a musical landscape long since obliterated.
Right or wrong, concert documentaries -- especially those produced in the 1960s and '70s -- tend to have a reputation for either poor transfer quality on video, or get disregarded under the assumption that quality doesn't matter. Which is unfortunate, although 'The Last Waltz' is not likely to change that faulty perception. Certainly, this first-ever Blu-ray 1080p transfer looks quite good and has many fine points to recommend. Still, the film does has an aged look, one that perhaps doesn't immediately make it a likely candidate to be the first to hit a new high-def format.
Starting with the positives, the source print used for this 1.85:1 widescreen transfer has been restored quite nicely. Blacks are surprisingly solid with no fading, and what an amazingly clean image -- sure, there is some grain as is appropriate given the vintage of the film, but there is nary a speckle or blemish to be found. And compared to Paramount's disappointing HD DVD release of 'U2: Rattle and Hum,' it looks positively magnificent. I was also impressed with the level of visible detail -- there is a genuine sense of depth to the picture, helped no doubt by Martin Scorsese's masterful use of foreground and background compositions. This transfer really does have that great sense of three-dimensionality that marks the best high-def.
Unfortunately, I was not as impressed with color reproduction. Fleshtones veer far too much towards the reds, most notably in the interview segments between songs. Sure, the concert scenes don't look natural given the theatrical lighting, but shouldn't the behind-the-scenes bits look more realistic and less skewed? I also thought the transfer was also a bit too dark, with shadow delineation lacking at times, though again this is primarily during the band interview segments. Still, despite these faults I was quite surprised with how natural and organic 'The Last Waltz' looks on Blu-ray. And I doubt most fans will be disappointed with this transfer.
As good as this video is, the audio is the real star of 'The Last Waltz.' Sony offers two soundtrack options, an uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix and a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well. Of course, The Band's final concert has been remixed many, many times before on CD and video, and I'm sure there is no doubt that this new Blu-ray presentation is the best the concert has ever sounded. However, just taken on its own terms, while it is a standout mix for its vintage it still suffers from some age-related deficiencies.
Most noticeable upon first viewing is that the high-end sounds particularly harsh. While I never heard any actual distortion and the sound is always clean and free of hiss, overall dynamic range does feel somewhat dated. Highs especially are a bit thin, though mid-range a little warmer. Bass response is perfectly fine as well if not exceptional (at least by today's standards), with low frequencies that are nice and solid but still a bit bland. However, I was decidedly impressed by how expertly remixed the concert is, with prominent uses of the surrounds throughout. More than just crowd noise, distinct instruments can be heard in the rear channels and are nicely localized. We even get the occasional movement of sounds from one rear speaker to another, yet it always sounds natural. Frankly, I was expecting a surround mix a lot more gimmicky than this.
Alas, I do have one major gripe. Rare with a concert film have I heard such disparately in volume balance between the musical sequences and the interview segments. Set at a natural volume level for the music, whenever a song ended and a band member began to speak, I could barely decipher a word they were saying. I had to adjust my volume for every single between-song snippet, which was supremely annoying.
Oh, and one more thing. As it has been on every other single Sony Blu-ray title I've reviewed thus far, for some reason the studio has encoded the PCM track at a much higher volume level than the soundtrack options. So if you do decide to switch between tracks on the fly, you would be well advised to turn down your volume to a more reasonable level -- because if you click over to that PCM track with the audio blaring, you could do serious harm to your equipment, your hearing or both.
It always strikes me as a tad bit funny that concert documentaries often get extras, because it is sort of like the making-of the making-of. But I guess when you have Martin Scorsese directing your band's swan song, it's no laughing matter.
There are two main extras on this Blu-ray release. First is an audio commentary with Scorsese and Robbie Robertson. The auteur lives up to his reputation here as a technical virtuoso, and he becomes almost entirely absorbed in the logistical challenges required in capturing the live concert, especially a one-off with no back-up date. Robertson, meanwhile, chimes in with lots of raves about his bandmates and musical guest stars. A bit of a schizophrenic commentary, and after a while all of Scorsese's technical musings do get a bit dry. Still, fans of the director or live documentaries should definitely give it a listen.
The other supplement on the disc is the 20-minute featurette "Revisiting 'The Last Waltz.'" Somewhat redundant when coupled with the commentary, this is mostly a new interview with Scorsese and Robertson waxing philosophical on the importance of the doc as time capsule, the end of The Band's career and the capper of an entire musical era. Also worth a watch.
Unfortunately, there are some good extras that appeared on the previous DVD special edition of the film but have been left off of this Blu-ray release. Aside from a nice photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and an 8-page booklet with liner notes by Robertson himself, there was also 12 minutes of audio-only extended jams. It is shame Sony couldn't squeeze those on this disc, as some of them really rock. Of course, the extended jams are easily obtainable on DVD and CD, so I'm sure most diehard fans of the group probably already have the material anyway.
Even though I new little about The Band before sitting down to watch 'The Last Waltz,' I thoroughly enjoyed it and came away with a sincere appreciation for the group's formidable talent and legacy. This is also a above-average Blu-ray presentation, with a very fine transfer and soundtrack plus a couple of worthwhile extras. While not a package for true completists as it offers nothing new versus past releases, the upgrade in picture and sound is noticeable over the standard DVD release, so diehard fans may want to consider picking this one up.