The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's film record of the Band's final performance at an all-star concert in 1976, has been remastered and re-released for a limited 10-city theatrical run In celebration of its 25th anniversary this spring. A DVD version featuring additional performances and musican commentaries not included in the theatrical cut will be released in early May. And Rhino Records is issuing a new remix of the soundtrack available as a 54-track boxed set in mid-April.
Regarding the new prints of the film, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times wrote "The sound of The Last Waltz has been sweetened and tweaked; now you can more easily hear the gracefully distended playing of Pops Staples, one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, as the Staples back the Band on "The Weight," performing on a soundstage in a segment without an audience......seen today, there's a preserved-in-amber feeling to the film, and the bluesy tint of the songs seems more appropriate than ever in retrospect."
A mixture of live performances, studio recreations and documentary interviews, The Last Waltz seems to be an anomaly in Scorsese's career until you check his filmography and see that he worked as an editor on two high-profile rock concert films of the seventies, Woodstock (1970) and Medicine Ball Caravan (1971).
Toward the end of the tumultuous production of New York, New York (1977), director Martin Scorsese got a call from Jonathan Taplin, his former producer on Mean Streets (1973). Taplin, who had once been a roadie for The Band, informed Scorsese that the legendary group were making a final concert appearance at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day and would be joined by several of their musician friends like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters. Scorsese, a longtime fan of The Band, contacted Robbie Robertson, the unofficial spokesman for the group, and made arrangements to film the concert. Their collaboration evolved into a two-year project during which time they became housemates. The resulting film, The Last Waltz (1978) not only featured all the musical high points from the seven hour Winterland concert but also included an additional filmed musical sequence shot at a MGM sound stage with Emmylou Harris and The Staple Singers. There were also candid interviews with all of the members of The Band, particularly Robertson who articulately conveys the ups-and-downs of sixteen years on the road. Most importantly, the film departed from the usual concert film format by avoiding gratuitous audience shots. Instead, it accurately captures the interaction of The Band musicians with each other and their guest artists.
Logistically, The Last Waltz was not an easy shoot. Even though Scorsese was working with some of the top cinematographers in the business - Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman, and Freddie Schuler - the prospect of capturing a live concert presented numerous problems in the area of lighting, camera movement, and audio recording. In Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly (Thunder's Mouth Press), the director recalled, "we would put two cameras on the side behind The Band, and a camera on the lip of the stage. The idea was that it not be a typical concert film. We had decided that if we were going to do that with the cameras, if we had that much control, we should use 35 millimeter instead of 16....But the floor was built over an ice rink and the floor bounced when everyone was there jumping up and down. The place would rock - literally. In this case the joint was really jumping, so we had to pour concrete to lock the 35 millimeter cameras into that. Then we had to anchor a big tower for shots of the stage."
"We got the set from La Traviata, from the San Francisco Opera Festival, but the stage was small. We had these big, wooden pillars and chandeliers, so there was very little room on stage. The main thing was that I was forced to make a script from what Robbie gave me. He gave me a sheet for each song, which had the title, the vocals, the verses, who would be playing what instrument, who would be the most important person at that place in the song. I designed the lighting with different lighting effects going on and off. Not like the old psychedelic shows but very, very simple, with each color in some weird way meaning something."
Obviously, The Last Waltz was a labor of love for Scorsese and, for fans of The Band, it is full of unforgettable moments: wild man Ronnie Hawkins bopping on stage to the tune of "Who Do You Love?"; Neil Young's performance of "Helpless"; Levon Helm and Robertson recalling their first trip to New York City; Garth Hudson revealing how he overcame his parent's objections to a rock 'n roll career. Yet, despite the film's infectious good cheer, there is also an underlying sadness and sense of melancholy to the proceedings because The Last Waltz is, in effect, a fond farewell to a whole era of rock music that has since disappeared. It is also a reminder of the hard road professional musicians must sometimes tread. Robertson says, "That road killed Elvis; it killed Hendrix" and it clearly took its toll on The Band. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 and Rick Danko died of a heart attack in 1997. But Robertson, Helm, and Hudson continue to record music and a film like The Last Waltz helps explain their obsession with their craft.
By Jeff Stafford
A SHARK TANK KNOWN AS THE GREAT WHITE WAY
Of all the films about the entertainment media and those who weld the greatest power within it, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is certainly one of the best - not only for its sharp, street smart dialogue but for its unflinching depiction of the wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes in creating celebrities. New York City has never looked more beautiful in black and white - or more poisonous. Perhaps it was inevitable that someone would attempt to remake the film but who could have expected a Broadway musical version, much less a collaboration between composer Marvin Hamlisch and playwright John Guare? Yet, despite the talent involved, Sweet Smell of Success, with John Lithgow starring in the central role of J.J. Hunsecker, is getting murdered by the critics. It's rather ironic considering that the film version of Sweet Smell of Success was not well liked by mainstream critics or general audiences during its original release either. According to reporter Jack Mathews: "When the New York premiere of director Alexander Mackendrick's caustically brilliant film "Sweet Smell of Success" ended in the early summer of 1957, the world's most powerful columnist, Walter Winchell, is said to have been watching from the other side of the street while his minions worked the crowd coming out of the theater."Irving Hoffman patrolled the lobby ...collecting intelligence to pass on to Walter and telling everyone who asked that the film was a bore," Neal Gabler wrote in "Winchell." "Other press agents scurried across to Walter to tell him how awful the film was."
Like the current musical version of Sweet Smell of Success, the 1957 film was viewed as a rather unusual collaboration for the time - Burt Lancaster was one of the producers and the star, Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay with extensive dialogue contributions from Clifford Odets, and Alexander Mackendrick served as the director. Mackendrick was best known as a director of British comedies (The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers, 1955) when he was chosen to replace Ernest Lehman as the director on the film. The result was a visually stunning and hard-edged film noir melodrama which was actually a little too strong for mass audience acceptance in its time. It told the story of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and dangerous national columnist, and his obsequious assistant, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Hunsecker, who has the power to make and break reputations in his daily newspaper column, was said to be modeled on Walter Winchell who had made his share of enemies during his peak years.
The screenplay was inspired by an original story from Ernest Lehman who worked for celebrity press agent Irving Hoffman in Manhattan in the late 1930s. Lehman had ample opportunity to observe the treacherous world of celebrity gossip he was working in and he even supplied Walter Winchell with column "items" on occasion.
Due to heath reasons, Lehman, who was serving as director and screenwriter, had to abandon the film production of Sweet Smell of Success in the early stages and MacKendrick took over direction. Clifford Odets was brought in to give the dialogue more punch with street slang and New Yorker vernacular.
Lancaster, whose production company had optioned Sweet Smell of Success, was considering Orson Welles for the role of Hunsecker when he decided to play the character himself. Compromising himself further, he also began to challenge Alexander MacKendrick's directorial decisions once filming began, a possible result of identitying too closely with the overly manipulative Hunsecker character. Although Lancaster delivered a final cut of the film without Mackendrick's involvement, he soon realized his mistake and called the director back in to fix the ending. The result is without a doubt MacKendrick's most accomplished film and a testiment to his careful rehearsal and elaborate storyboard preparation for the film.
What's most surprising is the fact that Sweet Smell of Success was totally ignored during the 1957 Oscar race. Not only was Tony Curtis's breakthrough performance as the self-loathing Sidney Falco ignored but even Elmer Bernstein's dynamic, jazz-influenced score failed to garner an Academy Award nomination. The latter featured notable contributions from Chico Hamilton's Quintet and such fine musicians as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Counce, Paul Horn, and Buddy Clark.
Currently, Sweet Smell of Success is enjoying a two week revival at the Film Forum in New York City in a gorgeous new 35mm print and will be available for bookings in other major cities where there is a repertory cinema house. New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote that "the movie has proved prophetic: the innuendo-mongering, double-dealing and insider information-trading practiced by its press agents and tabloid columnists is no longer confined to a Midtown subculture. Thanks to cable television, the glossies and the Internet, we can all fancy ourselves denizens of what [critic A. H.] Weiler called the "bistro belt" without having to spend a dime on coat room tips." For more information on the film version of Sweet Smell of Success, visit the Film Forum.
By Jeff Stafford