The event was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and made into a documentary of the same name, released in 1978. Jonathan Taplin, who was The Band's tour manager from 1969 to 1972 and later produced Scorsese's film Mean Streets, suggested that Scorsese would be the ideal director for the project and introduced Robbie Robertson and Scorsese. Taplin served as executive producer. The film features concert performances, intermittent song renditions shot on a studio soundstage, and interviews by Scorsese with members of The Band. A triple-LP soundtrack recording, produced by Simon and Rob Fraboni, was issued in 1978. The film was released on DVD in 2002 as was a four-CD box set of the concert and related studio recordings.
Beginning with a title card saying "This film should be played loud!" the concert documentary covers The Band's influences and career. The group—Rick Danko on bass, violin and vocals; Levon Helm on drums, mandolin and vocals; Garth Hudson on keyboards and saxophone; songwriter Richard Manuel on keyboards, percussion and vocals; and guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson—started out in the late 1950s as a rock and roll band led by Ronnie Hawkins (Levon Helm was already a member of Ronnie Hawkins' band when Robbie Robertson came on board, and Hawkins himself appears as the first guest. The group backed Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and Dylan performs with The Band toward the end of the concert).
Various other artists perform with The Band: Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. Genres covered include blues, rock and roll, New Orleans R&B, Tin Pan Alley pop, folk and rock. Further genres are explored in segments filmed later on a sound stage with Emmylou Harris (country) and the Staple Singers (soul and gospel).
The film begins with The Band performing the last song of the evening, their cover version of the Marvin Gaye hit "Don't Do It", as an encore. The film then flashes back to the beginning of the concert, and follows it more or less chronologically. The Band is backed by a large horn section and performs many of its hit songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek", "Stage Fright", and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
The live songs are interspersed with studio segments and interviews conducted by director Martin Scorsese in which The Band's members reminisce about the group's history. Robertson talks about Hudson joining the band on the condition that the other members pay him $10 a week each for music lessons. The classically trained Hudson could then tell his parents that he was a music teacher instead of merely a rock and roll musician. Robertson also describes the surreal experience of playing in a burnt-out nightclub owned by Jack Ruby.
Manuel recalls that some of the early names for The Band included "the Honkies", and "the Crackers". Because they were simply referred to as "the band" by Dylan and their friends and neighbors in Woodstock, New York, they figured that was just what they would call themselves.
Danko is seen giving Scorsese a tour of The Band's Shangri-La studio, and he plays a recording of "Sip the Wine," a track from his then-forthcoming 1977 solo album Rick Danko.
A recurring theme brought up in the interviews with Robertson is that the concert marks an end of an era for The Band, that after 16 years on the road, it is time for a change. "That's what The Last Waltz is: sixteen years on the road. The numbers start to scare you," Robertson tells Scorsese. "I mean, I couldn't live with twenty years on the road. I don't think I could even discuss it."
The idea for a farewell concert came about early in 1976 after Richard Manuel was seriously injured in a boating accident. Robbie Robertson then began giving thought to leaving the road, envisioning The Band becoming a studio-only band, similar to the Beatles' decision to stop playing live shows in 1966.
Though the other band members did not agree with Robertson's decision, the concert was set at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom, where The Band had made its debut as a group in 1969. Originally, The Band was to perform on its own, but then the notion of inviting Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan was hatched and the guest list grew to include other performers.
Promoted and organized by Bill Graham, whose home turf was Winterland and who had a long association with The Band, the concert was an elaborate affair. Starting at 5:00 p.m., the audience of 5,000 was served turkey dinners. There was ballroom dancing with music by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel, Diane Di Prima, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan and Freewheelin' Frank gave readings.
The Band started its concert at around 9:00 p.m., opening with "Up on Cripple Creek", during the wind-down of which vocalist/drummer Levon Helm called out a humorous "I sure wish I could yodel!" This was followed by eleven more of The Band's most popular songs, including "The Shape I'm In", "This Wheel's on Fire" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down". They were backed by a large horn section with charts arranged by Allen Toussaint and other musicians.
They were then joined by a succession of guest artists, starting with Ronnie Hawkins. As the Hawks, The Band served as Hawkins' backing band in the early 1960s. Dr. John took a seat at the piano for his signature song, "Such a Night". He then switched to guitar and joined Bobby Charles on "Down South in New Orleans".
A blues set was next with harmonica player Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, pianist Pinetop Perkins and Eric Clapton. As Clapton was taking his first solo on "Further on Up the Road", his guitar strap came loose. Clapton said "Rob!" and Robertson picked up the solo without missing a beat.
Neil Young followed, singing "Helpless" with backing vocals by Joni Mitchell who remained off stage. According to Robertson's commentary on The Last Waltz DVD, this was so her later appearance in the show would have more of an impact. Mitchell came on after Young and sang three songs, two with the backing of Dr. John on congas.
Neil Diamond was next, introducing his "Dry Your Eyes" by saying, "I'm only gonna do one song, but I'm gonna do it good." Robertson had also produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise the same year and co-wrote "Dry Your Eyes", which during the concert he hailed as a "great song". Diamond's appearance was not popular with all of the other performers. In his autobiography, Levon Helm was critical of the inclusion of Diamond, not discerning any musical connection to The Band. A persistent rumor claims that when Diamond came off stage he remarked to Dylan, "Follow that," to which Dylan responded, "What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?" However, Diamond claims that they were just joking around with each other before either of them performed, and Diamond never said anything like "follow that!" or "top that!"
Van Morrison then performed two songs, a special arrangement of "Tura Lura Lural (That's an Irish Lullaby)" as a duet with Richard Manuel and his own show-stopper, "Caravan".
Canadians Young and Mitchell were then invited back out to help The Band perform "Acadian Driftwood", an ode to the Acadians of Canadian history. The Band then performed a short set of some more of its songs before Bob Dylan came on stage to lead his former backing band through four songs.
The Band and all its guests, with the addition of Ringo Starr on drums and Ronnie Wood on guitar, then sang "I Shall Be Released" as a closing number. Dylan, who wrote the song, and Manuel, whose falsetto rendition had made the song famous on Music from Big Pink, shared lead vocals, although Manuel cannot be clearly seen in the film and switched between his normal and falsetto voices between verses.
Two loose jam sessions then formed. "Jam #1" featured The Band minus Richard Manuel playing with Neil Young, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton on guitar, Dr. John on piano, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and Ringo Starr on drums. It was followed by "Jam #2" with the same personnel minus Robertson and Danko. Stephen Stills, who showed up late, took a guitar solo and Carl Radle joined on bass.
The Band then came out at around 2:15 a.m. to perform an encore, "Don't Do It". It was the last time the group performed under the name "The Band" with its classic lineup. The five joined stage at a Rick Danko concert in 1978. The Band reformed without Robertson in 1980 and headlined at The Roxy in Los Angeles with Scottish group Blue supporting, guests were Dr. John and Joe Cocker. Rick Danko later performed at various LA venues along with Blue and it was at his invitation they recorded their LA Sessions album at Shangri-La Studios.
Robertson initially wanted to record the concert on 16 mm film. He recruited Martin Scorsese to direct based on his use of music in Mean Streets. Under Scorsese, the film grew into a full-scale studio production with seven 35 mm cameras.
The cameras were operated by several cinematographers, including Michael Chapman (Raging Bull), Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces). The stage and lighting were designed by Boris Leven, who had been the production designer on such musical films as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. With Bill Graham's assistance, the set from the San Francisco Opera's production of La traviata was rented as a backdrop for the stage. Crystal chandeliers were also hung over the stage.
John Simon, who ran the rehearsals for the show, would give Scorsese details as to who sang what and who soloed when for each song. Scorsese meticulously storyboarded the songs, setting up lighting and camera cues to fit the lyrics of the songs. But despite his planning, in the rigors of the live concert setting, with the loud rock music and the hours spent filming the show, there were unscripted film reloads and camera malfunctions. It was not possible for all songs to be covered. At one point, all the cameras except László Kovács' were shut down as Muddy Waters was to perform "Mannish Boy". Kovács, frustrated by Scorsese's constant instructions, had removed his communications headset earlier in the evening and had not heard the orders to stop filming. As Scorsese frantically tried to get other cameras up, Kovács was already rolling and able to capture the iconic song by the blues legend. "It was just luck," Scorsese recalled in the DVD documentary, The Last Waltz Revisited.
Notably omitted from the film is Stephen Stills, who only performed in a jam session. Also omitted were performances by poets Lenore Kandel, Robert Duncan, Freewheelin' Frank Reynolds, Emmett Grogan, Diane DiPrima and Sweet William. Both jam sessions were omitted from the film entirely.
While Bob Dylan had agreed to perform in concert, he did not want his appearance filmed because he feared it would detract from his own film project Renaldo and Clara. Warner Bros. had agreed to finance the filming of The Last Waltz with the understanding that Dylan would be involved in the film and soundtrack. Backstage negotiations took place during an intermission.
Robertson assured Dylan that the concert film's release would be delayed until after his film, and with that Dylan relented and agreed to be filmed. Promoter Bill Graham was also involved in the talks. "Somebody working with Bob said 'We're not filming this.' And Bill just said, 'Get out of here, or I'll kill you'," Robertson is quoted in the liner notes of the 2002 album re-issue as saying, "It all worked out."
According to Scorsese, Dylan made the stipulation that only two of his songs could be filmed: "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" and "Forever Young". "When Dylan got on stage, the sound was so loud, I didn't know what to shoot," Scorsese later recalled. "Bill Graham was next to me shouting, 'Shoot him! Shoot him! He comes from the same streets as you. Don't let him push you around.' Fortunately, we got our cues right and we shot the two songs that were used in the film."
Scorsese has admitted that during this period, he was using cocaine heavily. Drugs were present in large quantities during the concert. A smudge of cocaine on Neil Young's nose was edited out in post-production through rotoscoping.
Following the concert, Scorsese filmed for several days on an MGM studio soundstage, with The Band, the Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris. The Band's performance of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers was included in the film instead of the concert version. The Band and Harris performed "Evangeline", which was also included in the film. Interviews with group members were conducted by Scorsese at The Band's Shangri-La Studio in Malibu, California. Additionally, Robertson composed The Last Waltz Suite, parts of which were used as a film score. Finally, according to musical director John Simon, during post-production the live recording was altered to clean up "playing mistakes, out-of tune singing, bad horn-balance in the remote truck. Only Levon’s part was retained in its entirety."
Due to Scorsese's commitments to work on New York, New York and another documentary, American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince, the film's release was delayed until 1978.
During the editing process, Scorsese and Robertson became friends, and frequently collaborated on further projects, with Robertson acting as music producer and consultant on Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed and Shutter Island.
The film has been hailed critically, listed among the greatest concert films. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington calls it "the greatest rock concert movie ever made – and maybe the best rock movie, period". Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press comments that "This is one of the great movie experiences." Total Film considers it "the greatest concert film ever shot". On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a 97% (fresh) rating with just one negative review out of 37 total, from Janet Maslin of The New York Times. She states that it "articulates so little of the end-of-an-era feeling it hints at ... that it's impossible to view the Last Waltz as anything but an also-ran." Music critic Robert Christgau gives the soundtrack a "B+", saying "the movie improves when you can't see it." He praises the blues numbers by Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield, the horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint, and the "blistering if messy" guitar duet by Robertson and Eric Clapton.
Levon Helm, in his 1993 autobiography This Wheel's on Fire, expresses serious reservations about Scorsese's handling of the film, claiming that Scorsese and Robbie Robertson (who produced the film) conspired to make The Band look like Robbie Robertson's sidemen. He states that Robertson, who is depicted singing powerful backing vocals, was actually singing into a microphone that was turned off throughout most of the concert (a typical practice during their live performances).
Helm also discusses Manuel's and Hudson's minimal screen time, such as when Manuel sings during the closing number "I Shall Be Released", but Manuel is hidden behind the phalanx of guest performers. There are several shots catching Ronnie Hawkins looking around but not singing, yet Manuel remains invisible. However, during the same segment, in the background, it appears that a cameraman is attempting to get a shot of Manuel at the piano but gives up due to technical problems or the impossibility of the shot.
Helm went so far as to say that Last Waltz was "the biggest fuckin' rip-off that ever happened to the Band", citing that he, Manuel, Danko and Hudson never received any money for the various home videos, DVDs and soundtracks released by Warner Bros. after the project.
For the concert's 25th anniversary in 2002, the film was remastered and a new theatrical print was made for a limited release to promote the release of the DVD and four-CD box set of the film soundtrack. It opened in San Francisco's Castro Theatre, with the release later expanded to 15 theaters.
The DVD features a commentary track by Robertson and Scorsese, a featurette, Revisiting The Last Waltz, and a gallery of images from the concert, the studio filming and the film premiere. A bonus scene is footage of "Jam #2", which is cut short because they had run out of replacement sound synchronizers for the cameras after ten hours of continuous filming.
The original 2002 DVD release was packaged as a "special edition". In addition to the extra features on the disc, the Amaray case came in a foil-embossed cardboard sleeve, and inside was an eight-page booklet, featuring a five-page essay by Robertson entitled "The End of a Musical Journey". Also included was a US$5 rebate coupon for the four-CD box set. In 2005, the DVD was re-issued with different artwork and stripped of the outer foil packaging, inner booklet and coupon; the disc's contents remained unchanged.
In 2006, The Last Waltz was among the first eight titles released in Sony's high definition Blu-ray format. The soundtracks on the Blu-ray release consist of an uncompressed 5.1 Linear PCM track, a very high fidelity format, and a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The original soundtrack album was a three-LP album released on April 16, 1978 (later as a two-disc CD). It has many songs not in the film, including "Down South in New Orleans" with Bobby Charles and Dr. John on guitar, "Tura Lura Lural (That's an Irish Lullaby)" by Van Morrison, "Life is a Carnival" by The Band, and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)" by Bob Dylan. John Casado designed the packaging and logotype trademark.
In 2002, a four-CD box set was released, as was a DVD-Audio edition. Robbie Robertson produced the album, remastering all the songs. The set includes 16 previously unreleased songs from the concert, as well as takes from rehearsals. Among the additions are Louis Jordan's "Caldonia" by Muddy Waters, the concert version of "The Weight", "Jam #1" and "Jam #2" in their entirety, and extended sets with Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
The soundtrack recordings underwent post-concert production featuring heavy use of overdubbing and re-sequencing. Bootleg collectors have circulated an original line recording of the concert as a more accurate and complete document of the event. It includes songs not available in the film or the official album releases, including "Georgia on My Mind", "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", the complete "Chest Fever" and the live version of "Evangeline".