Martin Scorsese had the smarts, the interest, and the resources to make two concert films 30 years apart: The Last Waltz (1978) and SHINE A LIGHT (2008).
In 1976, the post-Vietnam era in the States, Martin Scorsese, and Robbie Robertson managed to record on film (the first concert movie shot in 35mm) the farewell concert of the Band in the venue where they first appeared as The Band, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were leaving the road after sixteen years. In an interview, Robbie says he couldn’t imagine doing it for twenty years. The Last Waltz was called “the end of an era”.
At that time, Scorsese was directing New York, New York, a big expensive production. But he had cut his editing teeth in the Woodstock film and learned what not to do there. He took some time off from the New York, New York project and filmed The Last Waltz in a weekend, put it almost all together in a week, and a few months later filmed three songs on a Hollywood soundstage. The Last Waltz grew from Robbie Robertson’s idea: a not-for-profit enterprise with no budget, done by the seat of its pants — almost an afterthought — ultimately became the concert movie by which all others are judged.
Thirty years later — after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas and all the awards for No Direction Home (2005), a documentary on Dylan’s early career — Scorsese did it again. He filmed a Rolling Stones concert.
Shine A Light presents the best of the Stones’ Beacon Theater concerts on their “A Bigger Bang” tour on October 29 and November 1, 2006 in New York City. It mixes interviews with the band from long ago (mostly in black-and-white) and in present time. This film marks another landmark: the backstage segments were the first time Scorsese used digital cinematography.
These films have some things in common.
In the beginning
THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! appears on the screen as The Last Waltz begins: a sign of the times in 1978. The movie opens with Rick Danko telling Scorsese that the game is “cutthroat” and a loud cracking of the pool balls as he breaks.
Shine a Light nods to that opening as it starts with Ronnie Wood taking a pool shot in a game with Keith Richards.
The Band is shown returning to the stage for an encore. They play “Don’t Do It” and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a beat up neighborhood of San Francisco on the way to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lining up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out.
Shine a Light will be filmed in a beautifully appointed theater. “The Rolling Stones” appears on a marquee between two rows of lights above the entrance of The Beacon Theater. Scorsese appreciates the balconies and huge space he has to work with and organizes the tracked moving cameras.
The Last Waltz
A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of the The Last Waltz logo to the music of The Last Waltz theme song, written by Robbie Robertson, as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood.
(Ronnie Wood appears in both films: in outtakes of a jam in The Last Waltz and more prominently in Shine a Light.)
The huge variety of styles to which The Band adapted and the energy they injected into the songs made for a memorable performance. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show.
The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with “Cripple Creek.” The film is interwoven with guests who play one song each and interviews of all the members of the Band and some friends. Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which became Dylan’s backup band and then The Band.
The commentaries of the director, musicians and others who were involved in the project which is played over the concert performances in the Special Features section is fascinating. As each person appears, someone talks about them. There is a hilarious description of Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with a striking performance of Caravan and an equally funny description of Dylan’s preparations for the show.
The actual filming was done for free by world renowned cinematographers who did it as a favour to Scorsese. Seven cameras were used.
Boris Leven, a personal friend of Scorsese and his set designer on New York, New York as well as The Sound of Music and West Side Story, thought of renting the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco opera company to spruce up the old Winterland. He helped design the sets upon which Scorsese shot “The Weight,” “Evangeline” and The Last Waltz theme song on a Hollywood sound stage. Leven’s idea of filling the Winterland Ballroom with chandeliers had to be cut back because they could only afford three of them.
Lighting was a concern for both shows. An assistant tells Scorsese in Shine a Light that one of the lighting effects will cause Mick to burst into flames if he stands near it for more than 18 seconds. Scorsese says firmly, “We can’t burn Mick Jagger. Very simply. We want the effect but we can’t burn Mick.” When Paul Butterfield does his solo in The Last Waltz, there is a general panic among the crew when they lose all power to the lights except the one spot on Butterfield and Levon. The problem is fixed in time for the next song and Robbie comments that it turned out to be a perfect shot for the harp player and the drummer.
Camera shots always preoccupy directors but Scorsese didn’t seem any more relaxed while discussing them with Mick thirty years after his assistant in The Last Waltz had to negotiate every camera movement with Bill Graham. Graham held the rights to the Winterland stage and insisted that nothing impair the sight lines of the live audience. When Mick mentions the audience inconvenience to Scorsese, the director opts for the swooping in motion cameras anyway. He knows the value of a historical document. He did it thirty years ago.
Poets and a President
A connection to the Beats plays prominently in The Last Waltz. Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight, recites a short piece of The Canterbury Tales in Old English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, recites a quick, cool poem and exits.
Thirty years later, the poetry is missing but the subjects of Scorsese’s concert film are meeting the former President of the USA and the ex-president of Poland backstage. In fact, as Bill Clinton announces in his brief introduction, he’s opening for them.
The Stones concerts benefitted the Clinton Foundation and the band received a visit from the president himself as well as his wife and their entourage. One of the funny parts of Shine a Light is Charlie’s response to an assistant reminding him that the meet-and-greet is at 6:00. He says “I thought we just done it.” To which the assistant replies, “No, you just met the president, he’s got thirty guests coming.”
At first, I liked The Last Waltz best because of the in-depth interviews and the commentaries and its good-natured, humourous attitude. But as for Shine a LIght, with a budget of just one million dollars and the high-pressure atmosphere of recording a Stones concert, it makes you wonder — what else could Scorsese do?
There was really no room for long conversations with the musicians. So, he threw in clips of past press conferences and interviews, where the early days of scandal and infamy were covered and the question which seemed to obsess everyone was “How long are you going to do this?” A young Mick Jagger says he thinks the Stones will last at least another year when they are two years old and then without hesitation says “Yeah” when Dick Cavett asks him if he could see himself doing it in his sixties. An old Keith Richard attributes his longevity to his coming from good stock and a younger one tells an interviewer his luck hasn’t run out when he’s questioned about surviving for so long.
Similarly, in The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson contemplates recent deaths of musicians like Janis and Jimi and the high-risk lifestyle. He says simply, “You can push your luck”.
Scorsese looks like the older, respectable director he is in Shine a Light compared to the hungry young man shown in The Last Waltz.
His personality shows, too, in Shine a Light, when a lighting effect test stops the group he is in from talking, shocked at the flash, Scorsese remarks “Hmm. That cleared my sinuses” and smiles. It’s the same mischievous sense of fun the viewer sees in The Last Waltz as he follows Rick Danko on a tour of Shangrila, the ex-bordello which has been turned into a clubhouse and studio.
The contrast between the two films is partly down to the differences in the times: the 1960s and 70s vs the first decade of the new century. But what’s most notable is not in these films’ differences and similarities, but that Martin Scorsese had the vision to see rock music in a historical context.
At the risk of sounding too Canadian, I think that both concert movies are well worth watching.