They came out of upstate New York by way of Canada, Arkansas and other newly paved parts of the heartland. Calling themselves The Band, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson arrived fully formed and well-rehearsed in 1968, looking a bit like Jesuit missionaries, and Bob Dylan's personal endorsement was a passport to instant prominence.
They lived in a house near Woodstock called Big Pink, where they grew songs full of cryptic allusions, nightmares and nostalgia, scamps, ragging mamas, and the Civil War, but at its heart they were mostly about redemption and almost never about romance. The Band contained maybe 85 percent of Americana's genetic code.
In 1976, they chose to call it a day; like Lily Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, they were bushed. To commemorate their retirement, they decided to throw a final concert, make a record, and shoot a movie, The Last Waltz.
The concert grew from a simple send-off to a megabash, and they managed to enlist Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell and a number of others who either influenced them or were their contemporaries and friends to join them onstage.
And their desire to make a cheap 16mm film of the event became one of the most lavishly produced and directed 35mm rock movies ever made, a half-dozen world-class cinematographers positioned strategically throughout the venue, all orchestrated by director Martin Scorsese.
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The film, restored and remixed, is back as a great-sounding DVD (after a brief run in a few selected theaters), and what was at the time a remarkable three-LP album is now an outstanding four-CD boxed set that contains all the original songs plus some 24 unheard tracks, most of it The Band, but there are also two jams, some rehearsal material, and unreleased performances by Morrison, Waters, Mitchell and Dylan.
Likewise, the DVD has the obligatory commentary track, a couple of trailers, some photos, and a documentary featurette. But it does have something else that says much about The Band and the concert in a stretched-metaphor kind of way. It's a nine-minute instrumental jam that isn't quite blues or rock, but teeters this way and that, as Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Steve Stills, Ron Wood, Ringo Starr, Dr. John and the others jump in and jump off.
On the CD it's neither ambitious nor even particularly interesting, unless you go for that parade-of-solos sort of thing, but on the DVD, the cameras, which were recording the song, run out of steam, and after seven or eight minutes the screen simply goes blank while the music grinds to an ungainly finish, more whimper than bang. The startling darkness serves less as an epitaph than as an afterthought, and it turns the era into a shaggy dog story, one that was finally not quite worth finishing.