In his infinite wisdom, the creator failed to give Robbie Robertson a singing voice. If he had, the ridiculously handsome Robertson might have become a lead guitarist-cum-frontman, like Eric Clapton, or a James Taylor-type all-around entertainer. Instead, Robertson had to learn to play with a band, one that eventually became the Band, one of the dozen or so truly great aggregations.
After providing the blazing backup for Bob Dylan's great electric tours of the mid-'60s, the Band moved to Woodstock, N.Y. There Canadians Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson and pianist Richard Manuel and Arkansas good ol' boy and drummer Levon Helm collaborated with Dylan on the informal sessions of Americana that became known as "The Basement Tapes."
After that they recorded four consecutive great albums on their own: "Music from Big Pink," "The Band," "Stage Fright" and the somewhat lesser "Cahoots." In these Robertson wrote songs especially for the soulfully craggy voices of his bandmates and crafted arrangements that drew on two centuries of popular song, from Stephen Foster to Motown.
It all culminated with a farewell performance at San Francisco's Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, filmed by Martin Scorsese with far more meticulousness than he lavished on his dark dramas. The carefully planned concert, in which the group was joined by a cast of admiring contemporaries, influences and a few ringers from Woodstock, was equal parts passion and magic, expertly shot by the great Michael Chapman, and Scorsese supplemented it with interviews and performances shot later on a sound stage. The result was nothing short of the best movie of and about rock 'n' roll ever made.
Twenty-four years later, the only thing that's changed is technology. Rereleased in an impeccably restored print, with its soundtrack remastered and remixed into digital 5.1 Surround, it looks and sounds better than it ever did. Detroit is one of only a handful of cities where the restored "Last Waltz" is being seen on a large screen. While the DVD, due for release May 7, contains extra footage, you shouldn't wait; this is one of the great movie experiences.
Not only was the Band one of the few rock outfits playing at the very peak of its powers when the players called it quits, it had remained an expert and flexible backup unit.
The group was able to turn on old bar-band theatrics for former boss Ronnie Hawkins on a blistering "Who Do You Love," provide down-and-dirty blues for an animated Muddy Waters on "Mannish Boy" and produce rustic folk-country crescendos for Neil Young on "Helpless." The latter performance provides the first of the film's four certified goose bump moments when, on the second chorus, the camera reveals a silhouetted Joni Mitchell backstage, providing a ghostly background vocal.
The second arrives when Van Morrison takes the stage to perform his gypsy-soul anthem "Caravan." When Allen Toussaint's horn section begins to pump up the choruses, the usually static and surly Morrison lets go with a kick of exaltation that nearly causes him to lose his balance.
The third is a gorgeously shot studio segment in which the group is joined by the Staple Singers in their best-known song "The Weight." The solo verses sung by Mavis Staples, then by her late father Pops, turn Robertson's allusive and earthy sing-along into a hymn of musical and spiritual solidarity.
Then of course, there's Dylan, playing hide-and-seek with the camera with the help of a big white hat and revisiting the mid-'60s arrangements of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" and "I Don't Believe You." Musically, it surpasses anything Dylan and the Band had accomplished on their 1974 reunion tour.
Not all is perfect: Neil Diamond's appearance is superfluous, and brief appearances by poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, who basically filled time between camera set-ups at the actual event, add nothing. And some of the interviews -- with Scorsese revealing his lack of rock 'n' roll cool, and the band members showing decided evidence of illegal-substance ingestion -- are a little embarrassing.
But Scorsese and the surviving Band members (Danko and Manuel are dead) have been wise to avoid altering or extending a bona fide classic. Fans of the film, however, will notice one small piece of digital historical revisionism: The white blur that was once added to hide a hunk of cocaine protruding from Neil Young's nose is now removed, but so too is the cocaine.