Scorsese: Then And Now by Steve Wheeler

It’s a deceptive title, really, because I’m not a film critic nor a fan of any director.


But Martin Scorsese was the one who had the smarts, the interest and the resources to make two concert films 30 years apart, THE LAST WALTZ (1978) and SHINE A LIGHT (2008).
In 1976, the post Vietnam era in the States, Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson managed to record on film (the first concert movie shot in 35mm) the farewell concert of the Band in the venue where they first appeared as The Band, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel were leaving the road after sixteen years. In an interview Robbie says he couldn’t imagine doing it for twenty years. The Last Waltz was called “the end of an era”.
At the time Scorsese was directing New York, New York, a big expensive production, but he had cut his edting teeth in the Woodstock film and learned what not to do there. He took some time off from the New York, New York project and filmed The Last Waltz in a weekend, put it almost all together in a week and a few months later, filmed three songs on a Hollywood sound stage. It grew from Robbie Robertson’s idea, a not for profit enterprise with no budget to an important cultural event, done by the seat of its pants, almost an afterthought, and ultimately, the concert movie by which all others are judged.
Thirty years later, after Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and Goodfellas and all the awards for No DIRECTION HOME (2005), a documentary on Dylan’s early career, Scorsese filmed a Rolling Stones concert.
Shine A Light presents the best of the Stones’ Beacon Theatre concerts on their A Bigger Bang Tour on Oct 29 and Nov 1, 2006 in New York city mixed with interviews of the band from long ago (mostly in black and white) and in present time The backstage segments were the first time Scorsese used digital cinematography.
Ronnie Wood appears in both films; in out takes of a jam in The Last Waltz, more prominently in Shine a Light.
THIS MOVIE SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!  appears on the screen before  The Last Waltz starts. A sign of the times in 1978.
The movie begins with Rick Danko telling Scorsese that the game is “Cutthroat” and a loud cracking of the pool balls as he breaks. Shine a Light nods to that opening as it starts with Ronnie Wood taking a pool shot in a game with Keith Richards.
The Band returns to the stage for an encore. They play “Don’t Do It” and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar places the viewer in a beat up neighborhood of San Francisco on the way to the Winterland Ballroom where crowds are lining up and the huge vertical sign above the entrance has half of its lights burnt out.
‘The Rolling Stones’ appears on a marquee between two rows of lights above the entrance of The Beacon Theatre. Scorsese appreciates the balconies and huge space he has to work with and organizes the tracked moving cameras. Shine a Light will be filmed in a beautifully appointed theatre.
A young couple waltzes gracefully across the screen against the backdrop of the The Last Waltz logo to the music of The Last Waltz theme song, written by Robbie Robertson, as the names of the guest performers appear: Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmy Lou Harris, Muddy Waters, The Staples, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood.
The huge variety of styles to which The Band adapted and the energy they injected into the songs made for a memorable performance. They were a perfect backup band as well as the stars of the show.
The concert itself is a mixture of Band originals beginning with Cripple Creek interwoven with guests who play one song each and interviews of all the members of the Band and some friends. Ronnie Hawkins tells the story of each band member as he was brought into The Hawks, Ronnie’s backup band which became Dylan’s backup band and then The Band.
The commentaries of the director, musicians and others who were involved in the project which is played over the concert performances in the Special Features section is fascinating. As each person appears, someone talks about them. There is a hilarious description of Van Morrison’s sequined outfit as he steals the show with a striking performance of Caravan and an equally funny description of Dylan’s preparations for the show.
The actual filming was done for free by world renowned cinematographers who did it as a favour to Scorsese using seven cameras. Ideas like Boris Leven’s of filling the Winterland Ballroom with chandeliers had to be cut back because they could only afford three.
Boris Leven, a personal friend of Scorsese and his set designer on New York, New York as well as  The Sound of Music and West Side Story, thought of renting the set of La Traviata from the San Francisco opera company to spruce up the old Winterland. He designed the sets upon which Scorsese shot The Weight, Evangeline and The Last Waltz theme song on a Hollywood sound stage. The songs featured the Band, the Staples and Emmy Lou Harris.
One of the great contrasts of the films is the reference to lighting. An assistant tells Scorsese in Shine a Light that one of the lighting effects will literally cause Mick to burst into flames if he stands near it for more than 18 seconds. Scorsese says firmly “We can’t burn Mick Jagger. Very simply. We want the effect but we can’t burn Mick”
When Paul Butterfield does his solo in The Last Waltz, there is a general panic among the crew when they lose all power to the lights except the one spot on Butterfield and Levon. The problem is fixed in time for the next song and Robbie comments that it turned out to be a perfect shot for the harp player and the drummer.
Camera shots preoccupy directors obviously but Scorsese didn’t seem any more relaxed while discussing them with Mick thirty years after his assistant in The Last Waltz had to negotiate every camera movement with Bill Graham who held the rights to the Winterland stage and insisted that nothing impair the sightlines of the live audience. When Mick mentions the audience inconvenience to Scorsese, the director opts for the swooping in motion cameras anyway. He knows the value of a historical document. He did it thirty years ago.
The Special Features section of The Last Waltz dvd contains a Last Waltz Revisited segment in which Scorsese and others talk about the experience 25 years later,
Perhaps the biggest contrast between the two films is that a connection to the Beats plays prominently in the Last Waltz when Michael McClure, the poet, appears on stage in a spotlight, recites a short piece of The Canterbury Tales in Olde English, smiles and walks off. Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears at the end of the show, just before Dylan, recites a quick, cool poem and exits.
Thirty years later the subjects of Scorsese’s concert film are meeting the President of the USA and the ex president of Poland backstage. In fact, as Clinton announces in his brief introduction, he’s opening for them.
The Stones concerts benefitted the Clinton Foundation and the band received a visit from The President himself as well as his wife and their entourage. One of the funny parts of Shine a Light is Charlie’s response to an assistant reminding him that the meet’n greet is at 6:00. He says “I thought we just done it.” To which the assistant replies, “No, you just met the president, he’s got thirty guests coming”.
The Stones play Jumpin Jack Flash, Shattered, She Was Hot, All Down the Line, Loving Cup with Jack White111, As Tears Go By, Some Girls, Just My Imagination, Far Away Eyes, Champagne and Reefer with Buddy Guy, Tumbling Dice, You Got the Silver, Connection, Sympathy for the Devil, Live With Me with Christina Aguilera, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and Shine a Light. Undercover of the Night, Paint It Black, Little T&A and I’m Free are included as a bonus special.
At first I liked The Last Waltz more because of the in depth interviews and the commentaries and its good natured, humourous attitude. But with a budget of one million dollars and the high pressure atmosphere of recording a Stones concert, it makes you wonder what else could Scorsese do? There was really no room for long interviews with the musicians so he threw in clips of past press conferences and interviews where the early days of scandal and infamy were covered and the question which seemed to obsess everyone was “How long are you going to do this?” A young Mick Jagger says he thinks the Stones will last at least another year when they are two years old and then without hesitation says “Yeah” when Dick Cavett asks him if he could see himself doing it in his sixties.
An old Keith Richard attributes his longevity to coming from good stock and a younger one tells an interviewer his luck hasn’t run out when he’s questioned about surviving for so long. In The Last Waltz Robbie Robertson contemplates recent deaths of musicians like Janis and Jimi and the high risk lifestyle. He says simply, “You can push your luck”.
As Robertson talks over Muddy Water’s performance in the commentaries expressing how honoured The Band was to have him in the show, he names some of the musicians influenced by Muddy and mentions The Rolling Stones being named after a Muddy Song.
Scorsese looks like the older, respectable director he is in Shine a Light compared to the hungry young man in The Last Waltz.
In Shine a Light when a lighting effect test stops the group he is in from talking, shocked at the flash, Scorsese remarks “Hmm. That cleared my sinuses” and smiles with the same mischievous sense of fun the viewer sees in The Last Waltz as he follows Rick Danko on a tour of Shangrila, the ex bordello which has been turned into a clubhouse and studio.
It’s just the difference in times, part of the 60’s and 70’s vs the first decade of the new century. But there can only be a difference, a comparison, a contrast, because Martin Scorsese had the vision to see rock music in a historical context.
At the risk of sounding too Canadian, I think that both concert movies are well worth watching.

Steve Wheeler is an Ottawa-based writer/musician & his published shorts appear on http://wheelerwrite.blogspot.com from week to week.

3 thoughts on “Scorsese: Then And Now by Steve Wheeler”

  1. A fine pice of writing about two top films. I was really suprised by how good Shine A Light was, considering I’m not a great fan of The Strolling Bones.

    Marty is indeed ‘Da Bomb’, as I believe the young people say.

  2. I enjoyed this. Just recently, I’ve been playin’ The Band’s cd to and from work and having strange thoughts about my childhood—thanks

    Kevin

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