Published on January 1st, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Top Ten: Most Awkward Moments in ‘The Last Waltz’
For fans of the rock-doc genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz is sacred ground. I’ve professed my own love for this picture before–when it came up just short of eternal Overdue Review glory in a previous countdown. Martin Scorsese’s 1978 document of The Band’s final show belongs in every rock fan’s movie collection. But there are certainly some shortcomings in this masterpiece of the genre. Let’s take a look at the ten most awkward moments in The Last Waltz.
#10: Neil Diamond Resembles a Stag Film Producer
All you have to do is look at your parents’ old prom photos to know that 1970s fashion was a hot mess. As Denis Leary once said, “There we were in the middle of a sexual revolution wearing clothing that guaranteed we wouldn’t get laid!” I’m sure Neil Diamond had no issues getting laid, by the time he appeared in The Last Waltz, he had already cut smooth numbers like “Sweet Caroline” and “I Am…I Said.” So when he rolls on stage and belts out “Dry Your Eyes” looking like the living parody of a ’70s porn star, it’s somewhat forgivable. Still, those aviators make it awfully hard to take it seriously when he sings about “that distant falling angel that descended much too soon.”
#9: “The Weight” Music Video
Sure, The Last Waltz gives us a complete rundown of The Band’s greatest hits, making it easy for casual fans to dig this film. “Don’t Do It” is hammered out as the film’s opener, Levon Helm slays “Ophelia” and of course “Up On Cripple Creek” is pure badassery. But when it comes to the group’s greatest number “The Weight”, a song that has become a modern rock standard, it’s relegated to a glorified music video! When this tune rolls around, instead of hearing the group croon their verses along with an adoring audience, we get a stale rendition shot on a soundstage with The Staple Singers. It’s real tough to make “The Weight” boring but it’s one of the film’s few snoozers thanks to this approach.
#8: Van Morrison’s Drunken Little Kicks
This movie is full of rock royalty, including the five immensely talented guys at its center. We will get to Neil Young and Robert Zimmerman later but when Ireland’s favorite singer Van Morrison rips through a drunken rendition of “Caravan”, the show looks more like a frat party gig than the last ride of an iconic band. Honestly, I love the energy Van throws out there during this tune but it gets a little awkward at the end as he pulls off some leg kicks that Elaine Bennes would be proud of. I’d be shocked if he could spell his name after that performance!
#7: THIS Random Guy
During The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese takes the audience behind the scenes, talking with the members of The Band about their short career and decision to call it quits. When he’s walking with bassist Rick Danko through the group’s Shangri-La studio, the camera quickly pans into a doorway where we see hands-down the creepiest shot in the entire picture. This unnamed guy, just sitting there. Staring. It’s like a deleted scene from The Shining.
#6: Bad Beat Poetry
Great songs, movies, books and works of visual art have a way of never aging. You can look at anything written by George Orwell or any painting of Vincent Van Gogh’s and they still feel fresh and relevant. 1960s beat poetry just doesn’t work like that. Peppered throughout The Last Waltz are a pair of poetry readings that both come off as pretentious and dull through the lens of 2013, and when thrown betwixt a lot of ballsy folk rock tunes–they really slam the brakes on the movie’s momentum. By far the most awkward one is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s reading of “Loud Prayer”. The poem is meant to be a sarcastic play on “The Lord’s Prayer” and features this passage:
Thy wigdom come and gone
Thy will will be undone
On earth, as it isn’t heaven
Yep, it’s edgy stuff.
#5: Neil Young’s Coked-Out “Helpless”
Much has been said about Neil’s performance of his classic “Helpless” in this film. Rumors have long persisted that a lump of cocaine is visible in the singer’s nostril as he belts the number out with his Canadian brethren onstage. You’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to decide if it’s Tony Montana’s favorite recreational substance or merely a bat inside the hall of famer’s cave. One thing nobody can deny though is that Neil was stoned out of his mind during this performance. The glazed-over, bloodshot look in his eyes is enough to tell that tale. Thankfully, Mr. Young has gotten much better at performing on camera since then, but the mystery of what was inside his nose will forever remain a folk tale among rock fans.
#4: Rick Danko’s Coked-Out Interview
In a movie full of drug-fueled scenes, Rick Danko’s interview with Martin Scorsese is arguably the coke-iest. Both guys look like they’re hammered but when Danko begins talking about his post-Band plans, it’s turns awkward real quick. Danko had one of The Band’s most powerful voices but his chat with Marty comes off as a rambling, incoherent mess of burnt-out disappointment and future goals.
#3: Richard Manuel’s Disembodied Voice
Anyone who digs The Last Waltz will tell you one of the film’s most electric moments is when The Band is joined onstage by a slew of rock and roll titans for a performance of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield and even Jack Frost himself join the group for the movie’s closing number. Scorsese’s crew did a nice job covering all the onstage action throughout the packed concert but one glaringly awkward moment comes when pianist Richard Manuel belts out his verse in “I Shall Be Released” and is nowhere to be seen! All the musicians are looking at him as he sings but instead of getting a nice shot of Manuel, we are left with closeups of the side of Robbie Robertson’s perfectly-quaffed head. So we’re left with a disembodied voice–and it’s not the only time in the film. During Neil Young’s “Helpless” Joni Mitchell inexplicably stands behind a curtain and sings her accompaniments.
#2: Bob’s Hat
As I’ve written before, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Dylan fan than this guy. But seriously, who gave him the thumbs up on this bonnet?
#1: Produced By: Robbie Robertson
How big of a crush did Marty have on Robbie Robertson? From the opening moments of The Last Waltz, it’s clear this is Robertson’s movie and rest of his Band-mates are merely co-stars. The late, great Levon Helm openly ripped this movie years after its release, saying in his 1993 autobiography that it was “The biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to The Band,” because no one but Robertson received any royalties from home video sales. There’s no question that Robertson was key to The Band’s success–he wrote so many of their greatest songs and was a master chameleon-like musician–but there’s a reason The Band was called such. If you find yourself wondering why the lion’s share of screen time went to Robertson, look no further than the movie’s production credits.