The Last Waltz begins with a single title card: “This film should be played loud!” and with it, Martin Scorsese’s “rock-doc” appropriately kicks off our Play It Loud! film series to celebrate the end 2019. For the next two weeks, we will be presenting three of our favorite concert films in the historic Main Auditorium, with our new enhanced audio system, to conclude this exciting year and the end of the decade. Come ready to sing, dance, and move along to these classic films that, when presented in our largest theater, will create the immersive experience you cannot get anywhere else.
Filmed on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, THE LAST WALTZ was the final performance of The Band in their original lineup at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. After over a decade of touring, most notably as Bob Dylan’s supporting group in the years he “went electric”, life on the road became too taxing so the group decided to hang it up with an epic celebration of music, community and family, with a Thanksgiving dinner included for all attendees. The Band would perform their last show with an eclectic lineup of guests and some of the best musicians of the last twenty years like Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Wood, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and many many more.
Having been cut from the original, acclaimed Woodstock documentary, Robbie Robertson, guitarist and de-facto leader of the group (a label that came with some resentment from the rest of group), was looking for The Band’s swan song and to make a statement that would let the musicians go down in history. As Martin Scorsese was achieving early success with the release of Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), unleashing the New Hollywood aesthetic that was taking over the industry, he was brought onto the project as he had an existing professional relationship with The Band’s manager Jonathan Taplin, a Producer on Mean Streets. Scorsese brought with him a new philosophy filmmaking and a youthful open-mindedness. Moreover, as music played such an important role in his films already, he was clearly the best-suited Director to take on the job.
At this time, concert documentaries often shared focus between the group onstage and the crowd. After all, we recognize the footage of fans during Beatlemania as well as we recognize the performances from The Beatles themselves. Still, Scorsese came onto the project with it in mind to focus solely on the musicians, the craft, and the chemistry that existed on stage. He went as far as to meticulously script the camera movements, creating as Rolling Stone magazine described “a cinematic rendering of the alchemy that musicians – and especially those five Band members – produce when they’re caught in that spotlight.” Once the shoot was completed, United Artists even gave Scorsese more money for re-shoots months later, unusual of for a concert documentary, and we were gifted with the group’s performance of “The Weight” featuring The Staples.
Though drawing criticism from The Band, particularly Levon Helm who claimed the film focused too heavily on Robertson, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington calls it “the greatest rock concert movie ever made – and maybe the best rock movie, period” and Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press has said, “This is one of the great movie experiences.”
Once the project was completed, Scorsese and Robertson’s professional relationship would continue for decades, as Robertson acted as a music producer, consultant, and composer on Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, Shutter Island, and most recently The Irishman.
Stop Making Sense (1984) – Monday, December 9
As The Last Waltz was a farewell performance, STOP MAKING SENSE antithetically exists as a documentation of the anticipated reunion of Talking Heads. Shot over the course of four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December of 1983, Director Jonathan Demme captured the performances as the group was on tour promoting their new album Speaking in Tongues, their first after reforming from a brief hiatus.
Stop Making Sense rivals The Last Waltz as one of the most critically acclaimed music docs ever made, described by Leonard Maltin as “one of the greatest rock movies” and by Pauline Kael as “close to perfection.”
Demme, like Scorsese, came onto the film after having a few breakout successes such as Caged Heat (1974), Fighting Mad (1976) and Melvin and Howard (1980), but decided to shift his career into a new direction after having some difficulty making Swing Shift (1984), starring Goldie Hawn and Russell Crowe, which was universally panned by critics and audiences.
Visually, Stop Making Sense is iconic for David Byrne’s use of “the big suit” during the performance of “Girlfriend is Better”, inspired by traditional Japanese Kabuki theater, which Byrne experienced while visiting Japan and was intended to make his head look smaller on stage,
And technically, the film and its soundtrack stand out as pioneers of 24 track mixing, which produced an audibly clearer soundtrack than had been experienced in film before. On its own, the soundtrack spent over two years on the Billboard 200 chart following the release of the film and is ranked 345 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Stop Making Sense’s inclusion in this series was an obvious choice, both in its acclaimed nature and as a favorite among our Ann Arbor audience, with crowds of 200+ turning out consistently with each screening we’ve had in the last 5 five years. Where The Last Waltz is more of an emotional experience, Stop Making Sense is full of joy and excitement. Attending a screening is a Top 5 Theater Experience because it’s almost physically impossible NOT to get up and dance.
Gimme Shelter (1970) – Monday, December 16
And where the emotions of the two previous films merge, you’ll find GIMME SHELTER, the Maysles Brother’s documentation of The Rolling Stone’s 1969 performance at the Altamont Speedway, which concluded in the tragic stabbing of a young concertgoer by the Hells Angels, and in hindsight, literally and symbolically marked the end of the 1960s counterculture era.
Albert and David Maysles, who had made a name for themselves with the 1968 documentary Salesman, began production of the film beginning with the Stones’ show at Madison Square Garden earlier in the year. Proponents and cultivators of the Direct Cinema movement of the decade, the Maysles were attempting to document the band’s travels and let the action unfold for the camera naturally, rather than intervening, to provide the most honest view of their subjects, much in the way that D.A Pennebaker made Don’t Look Back with Bob Dylan in 1967. The events that took place at Altamont were a mere happenstance that would define the production.
The free concert at Altamont began in attempt to recreate the spirit of Woodstock, which took place four months earlier. The “Woodstock West” would include The Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones as headliners, with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young as supporting acts, but the solidification of the venue became an omen that would lead to the show’s place in history. As the Golden Gate Park and Sears Point Raceway fell through, Altamont was offered and chosen at the last minute, despite the obvious logistical hurdles that would need to be overcome to ensure its success. What became the most troubling issue was the movement of the stage at the last minute and its height, which lifted just a meter off the ground, because it required security around the perimeter to ensure the safety of the musicians. To protect the acts against the raucous and over-sized crowd, the Hells Angels were hired to sit on the sides of the stage to keep the attendees off. Ralph “Sonny” Barger, leader of the Hells Angels, was documented in stating, “They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over.” And to complicate matters further, after facing criticism for inflating ticket prices, The Rolling Stones succumbed to pressure and made the concert free to commemorate the end of their 1969 U.S. tour.
Though the conclusion of the film is tragic, the film includes incredible examples of a fandom exploding with energy and joy. The films tracklist includes performances from The Rolling Stones as they were the most successful group touring in the world, hit songs including “Jumping Jack Flash”, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and of course, “Gimme Shelter”, with additional footage from Jefferson Airplane as well as Ike and Tina Turner at Madison Square Garden.
Gimme Shelter exists as a testament to a decade of music and represents cinema’s place in the development of pop cultural history, as well as how this development can be documented. What started as a relatively simple project of a rock band on tour, Gimme Shelter captured an example of how at a single moment the world can change and generations fade, but with a camera in the right place, it can also be seen. That’s the power of cinema.
Leave the year ringing….
As the 2010s come to a close, we look to send the decade off with a bang, together as a community listening to music we can all appreciate and enjoy. Mondays in December will be about dancing, singing, music and celebration and we hope you’ll be here to help us leave year behind ringing.