Robbie Robertson's Big Break

A Reevaluation of Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz

by Stephen E. Severn

From Film Quarterly, 56, issue no. 2, pages 25-31, Winter 2002-2003. Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2007 by The Regents of University of California. All rights reserved. Published on the web with permission from the author and the copyright holders.


The Last Waltz represents a dramatic reimagining of the possibilities inherent in the "rockumentary" genre. Ostensibly, the film chronicles the final concert given by The Band in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, but ultimately it stands as much more than a simple documentary. It may be the best film ever made about the music scene, but rather than celebrating the now fabled rock group, what The Last Waltz really does is foretell is death. Yet as a film that moves beyond the music to engage with ideas about imagemaking (both that of the guitarist, Robbie Robertson, and, more indirectly, that of the filmmaker himself), it has resonance beyond its own history. Recent screenings of the re-released and digitally remastered print have engaged unexpectedly large and varied audiences. United Artists has also released the remastered film on DVD, complete with extra footage, audio commentary from Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and liner notes by Robertson.

Earlier concert films such as Gimme Shelter and Woodstock featured relatively low-quality footage and unimaginative camerawork. Their rudimentary approaches implicitly question the importance of the very events that the films attempt to capture, as though they were just rock concerts and did not deserve the expense and care given to more serious subjects. But from the outset, Scorsese and The Band commited to making The Last Waltz the first concert film shot in 35 mm. It is crammed with astonishing visual depth and unexpected images -- the stage presences in intimate and overwhelming close-ups set against a dark and brooding background. The influence of the film's clarity can be clearly traced in such later works as the Talking Heads' Stop making Sense (1984) and U2's Rattle and Hum (1987). Moreover, Scorsese's camerawork further confounds the expectations of the genre by essentially eliminating the audience from the film, thus focusing all the attention on the musicians themselves.


Beyond its obvious importance as a concert film, The Last Waltz deserves renewed critical attention simply as a film, because no thorough explication of its basic thematic contruction has yet appeared. It has long been relegated to the margins of Scorsese scholarship and generally merits only a passing mention, alongside his 1978 documentary American Boy, as a minor diversion for the director that helped to fill the gap between New York, New York (1977) and Raging Bull (1980). This is unfair, because The Last Waltz marks a crucial turning point for Scorsese and is the first installment in a tetralogy of films that dominate his mid-period of work. It stands as his first exploration of the manner by which image may be manipulated as a means for eliminating risk, a thematic obsession which continues in The King of Comedy (1982), The Color of Money (1986) and Casino (1995).

In addition to critical neglect, The Last Waltz has also been the victim of general misinterpretation. It is often viewed in idyllic terms as an embodiment of nostalgia for the past, when in reality its focus is the future. Seeing it as a film built around a musical event reveals a calculated, commited and personal narrative. The movie's real subject is not The Band as a whole, but Robbie Robertson. The film represents a highly crafted and complex exercise in image-making. There is ample filmic evidence to suggest that Robertson influenced Scorsese's contruction of the film in order to establish himself as a star within the Hollywood community and launch his post-Band career. Robertson was the only member of the group to work with Scorsese during the 18-month postproduction period, and in drummer Levon Helm's estimation the duo "edited the movie to please themselves." [1]. To his credit, Michael Bliss does pick up on Robertson's overwhelming presence in the film and argues that "given the amount of footage devoted to Robertson, the film might just well have been titled Robbie Robertson Speaks." [2]. The guitarist's dominance goes far beyond the amount of camera time allotted to him, however, because virtually every visual and thematic aspect of The Last Waltz is designed to showcase his talents at the expense of the other members of the group. Because of this, the movie has no interest in simple nostalgia, despite the presence of numerous luminaries from the Woodstock era who approach their performances with an air of hushed reverence, as though they were taking part in the last hurrah for a rapidly evaporating age.

Robertson took a tremendous risk when, in 1976, he decided to disband the group because of its commercial failures and late keyboardist Richard Manuel's burgeoning drug and alcohol problems. He himself needed to establish an identifiable public persona; his talents as a songwriter, guitarist, and producer were widely acknowledged, but the group had publicly avoided the usual egotistical posings of rock stars. The Band enjoyed a reputation as a cohesive whole, which served to downplay Robertson's individual identity. But in reality, The Last Waltz represents an exercise in self-mythologizing -- through the interviews with their distinctive camerawork and settings and the on-stage footage of the actual concert -- for Robertson, and the deconstruction/destruction of the group as a whole.

The primacy of Robertson and his image is clearly demonstrated in the opening scene of The Last Waltz. It stands as an intricate and carefully constructed moment. At first the viewer sees nothing but a blank screen and hears only the voices of Rick Danko (the group's bass guitarist), Scorsese and another member of the film crew as they run through a first take, Danko manages to only utter one word -- "cutthroat" -- before the filmmaker interrupts him with a question to the crew about the audio recording. After this false start, the visual image appears as a close-up of a rack of balls on a billiard table. The camera then pulls back to show Danko preparing to break. But, before he does so, there's a brief conversation with Scorsese (off-camera):

SCORSESE: OK, Rick, what's the game?
DANKO: Cutthroat.
SCORSESE: What's the object of it?
DANKO: The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else's off.

If The Last Waltz sought to merely chronicle a concert, then this would be a most peculiar way to begin. Robert Kolker has pointed to the documentary quality of Scorsese's feature films, but here the reverse occurs as the "false start" serves to accentuate the feature quality of the documentary. [3]. Indeed, in planning for the concert shooting, Scorsese developed a 200-page working script that sought to coordinate the event at all levels. Although many of these directions were abandoned during the actual filming because of logistical realities, the script's mere existence underscores the fact that The Last Waltz does not simply capture an event, it constructs one, and "cutthroat" provides its central metaphor.

That metaphor, however, is extremely complex, and the scene demands careful consideration because within the subtle nuances of cutthroat's structure lies the unifying thematic principle of The Last Waltz. Certainly, the word itself carries violent, bloody connotations, and Danko's analysis invokes a vision of the classic Western gunfight, where the last cowboy left standing walks away the winner. But as Scorsese's inital question indicates, cutthroat is also obviously a game. It is not, however, a game of chance, but one of skill, audacity, and assurance. More than any other form of billiards, cutthroat values calculation and skill over luck. Success at the game does demand that risks be taken where appropriate, but by demonstrating careful control of the cue ball and foresightedness in planning for future shots, a skilled player can less the danger. Scorsese's camera clearly shows that Danko lacks these talents: he jabs the cue instead of stroking it, his shots are wild and random, and his face betrays the fact that he is surprised by the game's progression. The pool table becomes a site for chaos.

Contrast this with the following scene, as Scorsese cuts to Robertson calmly walking out on stage, alone, to address the frenzied audience before the concert's final encore. The shot constitutes one of the very few times in The Last Waltz where Scorsese chooses to highlight the crowd, and the assurance in Robertson's face as he greets the fans counterbalances the uncertainty just seen in Danko's. Robertson's ultimatum, delivered as he stands bathed in the spotlight at the center stage, "We're going to do one more song, and then that's it," emphasizes his control. More importantly, the shot establishes Robertson's identity as separate from the other members of the group. Although the movie begins with a shot of Danko alone, the other band members are clearly seen in that opening sequence as the camera follows him around the table. But they do not come onstage until after Robertson has announced their intention to perform a final number. These opening scenes thus establish The Last Waltz as a game of cutthroat where image, specifically Robertson's image, is at stake. He is willing to take the risk of playing "one more song" as part of The Band because film provides him with the opportunity to develop his own persona.

Although Scorsese handled the planning for the filming of the concert, the idea to do interviews came from Robertson. They were conducted in 1977, almost a year after the event. The guitarist also suggested that Scorsese do the interviews, but in retrospect the director feels that this was "not a good idea" -- finding the members of the band to "very quiet and very formidable." [4]. But in fact the interview segments constitute the most facinating part of the movie: this is where the construction of Robertson's image and the deconstruction of The Band's really occur. Scorsese talks with the members of the group, both singularly and together, at different locations at Shangri-La, their studio/headquarters in Malibu. In keeping with his own reservations, he truly is a terrible interviewer -- nervous, tentative, and clearly in awe of Robertson. Scorsese's deficiencies, however, only serve to acceuate Robertson's skills as a rhetorician: although he frequently bandies about pseudo-intellectual cliches, he is always articulate and well-spoken

Conversely, Scorsese's inexperience as an interviewer hurts the other band members, whose answers betray their relatively limited vision or their reluctance to speak. Manuel and Danko seem like precocious children who offer up amusing anecdotes about stealing bologna, and suggest that women are the real reason The Band stayed on the road for 16 years -- "not that I don't like the music." Compared with Robertson's artistic posturings and grand designs, Manuel's admission that "I just wanna break even" seems downright refreshing, but it's also sophomoric. Similarly, Scorsese admits that Helm proved a "formidable" subject who was not interested in talking. [5]. Helm himself is less reserved in his judgement of the situation: "I already had a bad attitude when I realized that the cameras had completely ignored the spirit of the event... I said, 'This shit don't mean nothing to me.' Nothing. I was just coarse and rude, country rude, because I was so damn angry." [6].

Organist Garth Hudson, however, stands as the exception, speaking with a quiet intensity and perspicacity about The Band's attraction to the rustic lifestyle of Woodstock and the role of street musicians as a healing force. Unfortunately, he only speaks twice, and in both cases, he is surrounded by the other four band members. Scorsese never approaches him in a more personal and revealing setting, and it must be noted that of The Last Waltz footage, Scorsese cuts short only the performance of "Genetic Method/Chest Fever," a pairing of songs which had long served as Hudson's concert showcase. Helm laments that The Last Waltz includes nothing to show "how Garth Hudson led the band and inspired us all." [7]. Perhaps Robertson felt threatened that the keyboardist's undeniable talent and quiet leadership would overshadow his own contribution to the group, and used his influence with Scorsese to marginalize Hudson's presence in the film.

The elevation of Robertson during the interview segments occurs in other ways as well. In multiple-person interviews, he always provides the astute analysis, while the other members make banal comments or act as mere background. A poignant, early scene with Helm demonstrates this strategy. The two are seated on the pool table from the opening scene, and Scorsese reminds us of the game of cutthroat taking place. With a velvet painting of New York City behind them, Helm discusses the city as a place where you "get your ass kicked," and recalls the group's early experiences there. Robertson adds to these memories, but then shifts the conversation to focus on their association with the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. He describes how the artists they met there, such as Neil Diamond and Carole King, worked to expand the importance of songwriting. During the last part of his analysis, Scorsese moves to a close-up of Robertson and then cuts to footage from the concert of Neil Diamon playing "Dry Your Eyes." Robertson simultaneously becomes the focal point, the pronouncer of historical judgement, and the point of transfixion for the film.

Similarly, in his one-on-one segments with Scorsese, Robertson is always framed by objects of power. For the first discussion, the camera captures both Scorsese and Robertson together, emphasizing the bond between them. A Canadian flag behind Robertson conspicuously calls attention to his heritage. The remaining interviews with Robertson take place in the studio console room, where Scorsese moves out of frame and a respectful distance is established as Robertson assumes the role of visionary and auteur, at home in the work space where he pursues his craft.

Quite different strategies are applied for the other members. While discussing how The Band got its name, Manuel curls up on a coach in the fetal position, looking, in Helm's words like "Che Guevara after the Bolivians got through with him," [8] Conversely, Helm is never interviewed alone; Robertson is always present, although at times he is off-camera and only his voice is heard. During two conversations that take place in the backyard at a picnic table, Scorsese carefully frames Helm with the pool table in soft focus in the background. The central metaphor of cutthroat remains ever present.

A rare view of the concert audience...

In keeping with the chaos that surrounds him in the opening scene, Danko is more volatile and elects to take Scorsese on a tour of the studio. His story of the building's former life as a bordello -- complete with references to "decadent" wallpaper -- is amusing, but lacks the gravity of the discussions that the director engages in with Robertson. In the end, Danko becomes infantilized just like Manuel when the bassist's tour winds up in the console room. Scorsese poignantly asks him what he has been up to since The Last Waltz. After fumbling for a second, Danko has a recording engineer play a tape of one of his recent compositions. Despite Scorsese's feigned interest, Danko's material clearly cannot match Robertson's songs, and after realizing how hopelessly inadequate his answer -- "trying to stay busy" -- seems, he lapses into a look of obvious frustration and appears to weep. Scorsese holds the camera on Danko in medium close-up for an agonizing 25 seconds, and at that moment the real-life implications of The Last Waltz seem to become clear to him: like a loser in the game of cutthroat, he sees clearly that all his balls have been knocked off the table.

Despite Danko's obvious disappointment over The Band's demise, The Last Waltz in no way seeks to dwell upon the past. Indeed, part of Helm's frustration with the film stems from his expectation that the project would amount to a celebration of times gone by: "The idea was for us to sit around the campfire and shoot the shit about the good old days, maybe pick up some instruments, let the good times roll." [9] At time, some of this actually does take place, especially when Danko, Robertson, and Manuel run through an impromptu version of the folk song "Old Time Religion." But even here, Robertson takes center stage because he is the one who suggests that the trio do the song as a treat "for the folks." After they have finished their decidedly ragged performance, he comments wryly, "It's not like it used to be," which, of course is the whole point of the movie. The sense of a lost past becomes a method for shaping expectations of the future after the death of The Band. The past is present in the movie only because it acts as an essential tool for the accomplishment of Robertson's agenda. His reminiscences and analyses serve to construct a vision of the past that casts him in the role of rock-and-roll auteur.

As a means of further manipulating the vision of past in order to develop his own mythology, Robertson specifically ties himself to Elvis Presley, "The King of Rock and Roll," throughout the film. As one of the few rock stars who managed to cross from music over to movies and back again, Presley personified the transition that Robertson hoped to make via The Last Waltz. Elvis dies between the filming of the Thanksgiving Day concert and Scorsese's subsequent interviews, leaving a symbolic gap in the rock-and-roll world which Robertson thought he could fill. To emphasize this, he repeatedly injects the figure of "The King" into the interview segments. For instance, when speaking of how "the road" claimed a lot of the "greats." he points to Elvis, a connection which represents a calculated exercise in a revisionist history, since it was the static decadence of Graceland and not a dynamic touring lifestyle that claimed the King's life. Earlier in the film, as Scorsese is interviewing Helm outside at a picnic table, Robertson's voice abruptly chimes in from off-camera with the word "Elvis" in answer to a question about who constituted the premier musical figure from the Delta region. As usual, Helm is cut off and overwhelmed by Roberson's agenda. Lastly, the Elvis standard, "Mystery Train," is the only cover song performed by a guest artist during the film, and not surprisingly, Robertson's guitar playing behind Paul Butterfield stands as some of his most lively of the entire concert. Although it has eluded critical attention, this strategy of association did not go unnoticed by Helm. he derides The Last Waltz as "mostly Robertson showing off and acting like he was the king." [10]

For the guitarist, the exercise in image-making succeeded brilliantly: in the wake of the film's release his reputation in Hollywood was established -- at least for a while. The romance would not last, of course, and Robertson's transition to a leading role in the movie business never occurred. He produced and acted in the box-office flop Carny (1980), but beyond that his involvement in film has been limited to various soundtrack projects, significantly including Scorsese's The King of Comedy, The Color of Money and Casino.

This said, a word of caution is still required. Given what's at stake in the film for Robertson and his dominance over the entire work, it would be tempting to read The Last Waltz as his film and see Scorsese simply as tool exploited by the guitarist. This position, however, would be both inaccurate and unfair. Although Scorsese's need for it is not as immediately evident as Robertson's, when Waltz is considered in relation to his other work it becomes clear that he gets just as much, if not more, out of the project.

For in this film Scorsese begins to explore the thematic agenda that comes to dominate three of his next major films, The King of Comedy, The Color of Money, and Casino, and he uses Robertson as a living template for the basic character type that dominates those works. All of them focus upon individuals or groups operating outside the mainstream of American life -- a delusional stand-up comic, and aging pool hustler, and a collection of gamblers and Mafia operators -- who are, literally and figuratively, looking for their big break. To achieve that goal, they must confront the manipulation of image as means for eliminating risk. Those who successfully manipulate image, either consciously or unconsciously, become winners, and those who do not become the exploited, the losers.

In Casino, casino manager Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) sums up this image/risk dialectic when he describes an encounter with K. K. Ichikawa, a Japanese businessman who initially wins two million dollars from the Tangiers Hotel. Unable to tolerate such a loss, Rothstein has Ichikawa's departing flight sabotaged and brings him back for a second round of gambling. Eventually, the gambler's luck runs out and the casino wins back its two million plus another million more. For Rothstein, the incident points to the cardinal rule of the house: "Keep them playing and keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose. In the end, we get it all." In the language of The Last Waltz, this equates to keeping "all your balls on the table." Seemingly simple, the lesson here actually points to a fundamental paradox. Because the house ultimately will win, risk is in fact not risk at all, but rather a foregone conclusion, and the only true smart move that a player can make is not to play. To "keep them coming back" demands that an image of fairness -- or, more correctly, of the possibility of winning -- be maintained.

"Fast" Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) spends the first half of The Color of Money trying to teach Vince (Tom Cruise) a similar lesson by exposing him to the language of 9-ball and the aspects of the game that occur away from the pool table. For hustlers, the color of money and the color of the pool table are one and the same, and the game goes far beyond the actual pocketing of balls. During their first meeting over dinner, Eddie states plainly that "pool excellence is not about excellent pool. It's about becoming something... a student of human moves." Thus the hustler points to the obvious fact that control of the game rest solely upon control of image. Aside from his natural shot-making skill, Vince's true gift lies in his being an "incredible flake." But, as Eddie notes, the real question is can he "flake on and flake off?" This last observation relates to the other central fact that Vince learns from Eddie: "Sometimes, if you lose, you win." Although seemingly paradoxical, the statement merely reinforces the fact that the game on the table stands apart from the true game, which seeks only one thing -- money.

The King of Comedy approaches the connection between risk and image from a somewhat different perspective. Unlike the main characters in the other films, the unstoppable Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is not seeking redefinition or rebirth, but rather finds himself with the more challenging problem of trying to establish an initial identity. "Fast" Eddie Felson and Ace Rothstein are journeymen who have earned reputations, but at least when Felson walks into a pool hall in Chicago he is recognized. For his part, Rothstein claims "I was so good, when I bet I could change the odds for every bookmaker in the country." Pupkin, on the other hand, is a nobody who desperately wants to break into the talk-show scene. During the fantasy lunch sequence that the comic imagines, his idol, TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), laments that those programs are all about the "same guests, same questions." The format prizes regularity above all else, and therefore Pupkin, as an unknown figure, represents the greatest possible gamble. On the surface, then, Pupkin's emergence at the end of the film as the newly crowned "King of Comedy" would seem to fly in the face of Ace Rothstein's assertion that "the players don't stand a chance" and to violate the fundamental connection between image and risk. But this is not the case. The comic succeeds because he operates within a completely different paradigm of social interaction.

In Pupkin, we see a character who conducts himself without any sense of embarassment and who sidesteps or plows through the obstacles that would stop all normal stand-up comics in their quest for fame. Fueled by his desire for fame and caught up in delusions of a relationship with Langford, Pupkin refuses to take no for an answer. To get his big break, he finally resorts to kidnapping the host and ransoming him for a chance to perform a monologue. The move goes beyond risky and lands firmly in the realm of the inconceivable. Indeed, the FBI agents who arrest Pupkin remain perplexed by his action even after seeing the taping. Those systems that manipulate image within the talk-show industry to limit its risks cannot touch Pupkin, because his own image is not a concern to him. He merely fails to recognize any and all barriers put in his way.

Thus Casino, The Color of Money, and The King of Comedy all revolve around the complicated relationship between image and risk. But Scorsese had already begun to examine this issue through the persona of Robertson in The Last Waltz. And the difficulty in applying the term "documentary" to The Last Waltz derives from its decidedly non-objective presentation of the demise of The Band. The focus of this film is Robbie Robertson; Scorsese built it around him and built it for him. After screening the movie for the first time, Ronnie Hawkins, the Canadian singer for whom The Band played back-up in the early 1960s, joked sarcastically, "The goddamn movie'd be awright if it only had a few more shots of Robbie" [11] [emphasis original].

Nearly 25 years later, Hawkins' ironic suggestion has actually come to pass with the recently re-released DVD of The Last Waltz. Featuring a wealth of extra material, the project is dominated by Robertson and continues the process of image-making begun in the original work. The special-edition disk contains five pages of liner notes penned solely by the guitarist; running audio commentary by him and Scorsese; and a 20-minute featurette entitled "Revisiting The Last Waltz" that amounts to little more than a pair of interviews with the two men, edited in such a way that they are essentially responding to each others' self-congratulatory comments.

Unlike The Last Waltz, however, the extra material completely dispenses with the pretense that its focus is The Band as a whole and is instead overtly devoted to the guitarist. For instance, the icon to select the audio commentary is labeled "The Filmmaker and the Musician" -- implying, of course, that the original group was little more than a single musician (Robertson) and four others who merely played instruments. And in the featurette, Scorsese, when speaking about the conception, planning and execution of the original film, always uses the pronoun "he" -- meaning Robertson -- as opposed to "they."

Thus the subtext of The Last Waltz has now become text. A quarter century after its release, its inventive camerawork, distinctive structure, and unparallelled music remain the standard against which all concert films must be judged. But now, it is impossible to see this as a work "about" The Band. Without question, its subject is Robbie Robertson, and it clearly seeks to elevate him above the other members of the group. In doing so, the film begins a thematic obsession with the connection between risk and image that continues through three of Martin Scorsese's next major works. Watch The Last Waltz and revel in the fiery musicianship and exquisite songs, but always keep in mind the vision of cutthroat, and watch carefully as Scorsese helps Robertson make his big break.

Stephen E. Severn teaches English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is currently completing his dissertation.


  1. Levon Helm and Stephen Davis, This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000), 275.
  2. Michael Bliss, Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985), 121.
  3. Robert P. Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 165.
  4. Martin Scorsese, Scorsese on Scorsese, ed. David Thompson and Ian Christie (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), 74.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Helm, 271.
  7. Ibid., 277.
  8. Ibid., 276.
  9. Ibid., 271.
  10. Ibid., 277.
  11. Qtd. in Helm, 372.

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