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'Waltz' Among Best Rock Flicks

by Kay Roybal

From The Albuquerque Journal, December 2002. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Not every musician at "The Last Waltz" was glad to be there. Band drummer and singer Levon Helm, whose lowdown, Southern twang and distinctive drum beats define some of the group's best-known songs, wasn't ready to retire in 1976.

"I didn't take any pleasure in it, but I did it for the rest of the band," he said recently. "We were led to believe that The Band was going to break up anyway, and we might as well let it make us hound dog rich."

"That was the big con job laid on everyone, and there wasn't much I could do."

"The Last Waltz," showing tonight as part of the Santa Fe Film Festival, is generally considered one of the best -- if not THE best -- among all rock 'n' roll documentaries.

With Martin Scorcese directing in a sumptuous, grand style and a cast of supporting musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Muddy Waters and Van Morrison, how could a film of the last concert by the full membership of The Band be anything else?

But Helm still stands by what he wrote in his 1993 autobiography -- that the much-heralded film was "a disaster" and "a scandal" in the way it was dominated by guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson at the expense of the rest of The Band, who weren't really ready to end the group.

The acrimony is hinted at in "The Last Waltz," as Robertson comes across as a master storyteller in numerous interview clips interspersed with the concert footage, while the other members of the group appear largely disinterested or slightly hostile in their brief talks on film.Robertson was not available for an interview in recent weeks, but he is scheduled for a public appearance at 2 p.m. today at the Hotel St. Francis as part of the film festival. He has previously called other Helm criticisms -- over songwriting credits -- "utter nonsense."

Helm, the only American in a band whose music suggests timeless Americana, traveled to Canada right after high school with his mentor, rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins. He was an early member of the Hawks, who became The Band following their association with Bob Dylan.

Helm was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta and it was the cadence of his speech and the style and mystique of his Southern roots that, along with the country, gospel and blues influences they all got from the radio, were the essence of The Band's music. An ensemble of gifted musicians, The Band was all about the music -- no flash, no stars. They toured for 16 years and put out a half dozen albums, two of which are considered among the most indispensable in the history of rock 'n' roll.

Although he had little input in the planning of the group's farewell concert, Helm was responsible for the appearance there of blues great Muddy Waters, who had just recorded "The Woodstock Album" at his studio.

Helm said the best moment of the night came when Waters left the stage after roaring through a powerful "Mannish Boy." Passing Helm behind the drums, Waters took his head between his big hands and kissed him on the forehead. There were no cameras recording that scene, and there isn't a single shot of the legendary Pinetop Perkins,Waters' piano player.

The movie also contains very few glimpses of The Band's keyboard and horn wizard Garth Hudson, even less of piano player and soul singer Richard Manuel, who is never seen during "I Shall Be Released," his signature song.

For Helm, the movie was tough to watch.

"I saw exactly what I was afraid of," he said. "Scorsese and Robertson had fallen in love with each other and with all the money they were going to make."

The film focuses squarely on the guitarist in a succession of long, loving close-ups. Helm complained in his book that "The Last Waltz" was edited to make it appear that Robertson was leading the band with waves of his guitar neck.

Robertson is also the subject of almost all the post-concert interview footage. The others were eventually cornered by the director, awakened from naps or caught at other inopportune moments. Helm's contempt is palpable as the director asks about growing up listening to music in the Deep South.

"They had to have someone in there besides Robertson, but anything real is on the cutting room floor," he said. "All I'm thinking is what a sin it is to take a good group from productivity to oblivion."

A defiant Helm did reform The Band without Robertson in the '80s. They toured the world, and put out several new records in the '90s.But the success of "The Last Waltz" made their legitimacy suspect in the music public's mind and they never again attained the level of respect they once enjoyed. Richard Manuel died by suicide on a depressing 1986 tour, and after the death of bassist and singer Rick Danko of a stroke in 1999, The Band was over for good.

In his book, "This Wheel's On Fire," Helm lays out his case that Robertson hijacked The Band's legacy to launch his film career. Robertson is now an executive at the Dream Works entertainment corporation. He has scored several movies and starred in one, "Carny," and has released four solo albums.

"Richard Manuel was the one of us who could have been a great actor," Helm said, "but he was made to look like the court jester. Richard wasn't offered any acting parts because of his role in the movie."

Helm didn't get any parts from it either, although he did pretty well on his own, winning critical acclaim for movie roles in "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "The Right Stuff." He said he's not surprised that the film festival won't show Robertson's one feature film, which was not well received.

"I love 'Carny,' '' he laughed. "And Robertson is still acting ... he's playing the part of a genius musician who doesn't have time to play music. The only good thing I can find to say about him is that at one time I was his best friend ... and he had at least four more good friends that I know of. Don't know if he has any now."

Helm survived a bout with throat cancer but no longer sings. As a musician, he is still greatly respected by his top-drawer colleagues and beloved by his legions of fans. He now plays the clubs with The Levon Helm Blues Band and a revolving cast of guests including Tony Garnier and Larry Campbell from Bob Dylan's Band and Jimmy Vivino from the Conan O'Brien Band. When they played the Paramount in Santa Fe two winters ago, they brought along sax player Bobby Keyes, now on tour with the Rolling Stones. Helm played on the CDs of blues great Hubert Sumlin and Louisiana Red, and appeared recently in concert with Little Feat.

Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters' guitarist who was at "The Last Waltz," still plays with Helm and calls his drumming "as good as it gets. He made the Band's music feel good as well as sound good.

"It's been said that the film of the Last Waltz deliberately pushes Robbie," he said. "True or not, I remember observing at the show that he was a charismatic character. But Levon Helm is particularly gifted in that department, too. When he's playing, it's hard to take your eyes off him."

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