Friday, July 31, 2009

Roger Ebert Blows My Mind

I was checking out various reviews of The Last Waltz on line after having thoroughly digested the anniversary DVD. In this searching I came across a review by Roger Ebert and was horrified by the evaluation. I actually considered Ebert a well-informed guy, and I usually check out his review of older movies that I’m interested in to get a general idea of what is coming.

This is an interesting view by an evaluator of movies in regards to a documentary focused on live music. I would have no disgust or inexcusable disbelief if he were evaluating the cinema of the work, the way it’s shot, edited, pieced together etc., but his evaluation focuses almost entirely on the music and his interpretation of the artists mindset during the performance. Here is the review:

"I wonder if the sadness comes across on the CD. The music probably sounds happy. But the performers, seen on screen, seem curiously morose, exhausted, played out. Recently, I was at a memorial concert for the late tenor sax man Spike Robinson, and the musicians--jazz and big band veterans--were cheerful, filled with joy, happy to be there. Most of the musicians in "The Last Waltz" are, on average, 25 years younger than Spike's friends, but they drag themselves onstage like exhausted veterans of wrong wars.

The rock documentary was filmed by Martin Scorsese at a farewell concert given on Thanksgiving Day 1976 by The Band, which had been performing since 1960, in recent years as the backup band for Bob Dylan. Now the film is back in a 25th anniversary restoration. "Sixteen years on the road is long enough," says Robbie Robertson, the group's leader. "Twenty years is unthinkable." There is a weight and gravity in his words that suggests he seriously doubts if he could survive four more years.

Drugs are possibly involved. Memoirs recalling the filming report that cocaine was everywhere backstage. The overall tenor of the documentary suggests survivors at the ends of their ropes. They dress in dark, cheerless clothes, hide behind beards, hats and shades, pound out rote performances of old hits, don't seem to smile much at their music or each other. There is the whole pointless road warrior mystique, of hard-living men whose daily duty it is to play music and get wasted. They look tired of it.

Not all of them. The women (Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris) seem immune, although what Mitchell's song is about I have no clue, and Harris is filmed in another time and place. Visitors like the Staple Singers are open-faced and happy. Eric Clapton is in the right place and time. Muddy Waters is on sublime autopilot. Lawrence Ferlinghetti reads a bad poem, badly, but seems pleased to be reading it. Neil Diamond seems puzzled to find himself in this company, grateful to be invited.

But then look at the faces of Neil Young or Van Morrison. Study Robertson, whose face is kind and whose smile comes easily, but who does not project a feeling of celebration for the past or anticipation of the future. These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job. Look in their eyes. Read their body language.

"The Last Waltz" has inexplicably been called the greatest rock documentary of all time. Certainly that would be "Woodstock," which heralds the beginning of the era which The Band gathered to bury. Among 1970s contemporaries of The Band, one senses joy in the various Rolling Stones documentaries, in Chuck Berry's "Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll" and in concert films by the Temptations or Rod Stewart. Not here.

In "The Last Waltz," we have musicians who seem to have bad memories. Who are hanging on. Scorsese's direction is mostly limited to closeups and medium shots of performances; he ignores the audience. The movie was made at the end of a difficult period in his own life, and at a particularly hard time (the filming coincided with his work on "New York, New York"). This is not a record of serene men, filled with nostalgia, happy to be among friends.

At the end, Bob Dylan himself comes on. One senses little connection between Dylan and The Band. One also wonders what he was thinking as he chose that oversized white cowboy hat, a hat so absurd that during his entire performance I could scarcely think of anything else. It is the haberdashery equivalent of an uplifted middle finger.

The music probably sounds fine on a CD. Certainly it is well-rehearsed. But the overall sense of the film is of good riddance to a bad time. Even references to groupies inspire creases of pain on the faces of the rememberers: The sex must have been as bad as anything else. Watching this film, the viewer with mercy will be content to allow the musicians to embrace closure, and will not demand an encore. Yet I give it three stars? Yes, because the film is such a revealing document of a time."

What I take the most umbrage with is this:

“…although what Mitchell's song is about I have no clue…”

The song Ebert refers to is Coyote, it follows an interview with the members in which they talk about women on the road. The two together are a glorious coupling.

Here are the lyrics to Coyote, (sung clearly and beautifully by Mitchell I might add)

No regrets, Coyote.
We just come from such different sets of circumstance.
I'm up all night in the studios
And you're up early on your ranch.
You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail
While the sun is ascending,
And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel...
There's no comprehending
Just how close to the bone, and the skin, and the eyes, and the lips you can get -
And still feel so alone.
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay.
You're not a, a hit and run driver, no, no,
Racing away.
You just picked up a hitcher,
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.

We saw a farmhouse burning down
In the middle of the road,
Where in the middle of the night,
We rolled right past that tragedy
Till we pulled into some road house lights
Where a local band was playing.
Locals were up kicking and shaking on the floor.
The next thing I know
That Coyote's at my door.
He pins me in a corner and he won't take "No!".
He drags me out on the dance floor
And we're dancing close and slow.
Now he's got a woman at home.
He's got another woman down the hall.
He seems to want me anyway:
"Why'd you have to get so drunk and
Lead me on that way?'".
You just picked up a hitcher,
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.

I looked a Coyote right in the face
On the road to Baljennie near my old home town.
He went runnin' through the whisker wheat
Chasing some prize down.
And a hawk was playing with him.
Coyote was jumping straight up and making passes.
He had those same eyes just like yours -
Under your dark glasses,
Privately probing the public rooms,
Peeking through keyholes in numbered doors
Where the players lick their wounds,
And take their temporary lovers
And their pills and powders to get them through this passion play.
No regrets, Coyote,
I just get off up away.
You just picked up a hitcher,
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.

Coyote's in the coffee shop.
He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs.
And he picks up my scent on his fingers
While he's watching a waitresses' legs.
He's too far from the Bay of Fundy
From appaloosas and eagles and tides.
The air conditioned cubicles and the carbon ribbon rides
Are spelling it out so clear:
Either he's going to have to stand and fight,
Or take off out of here.
I tried to run away myself,
To run away and wrestle with my ego -
And with this flame you put here in this Eskimo -
In this hitcher -
In this prisoner -
Of the fine white lines -
Of the white lines -
On the free, free way.

A thoughtful man, a writer about art is befuddled and dumbfounded at the prospects of what this song is about, commented in a way that would infer that to him the song is nonsensical and without meaning? This is really astonishing to me, are the veins of music and movie that different, a man who can be enveloped and deeply moved by the script of No Country For Old Men, dismisses this song as if it were an unknown mathematics?

Ebert also comments that Clapton seems in the right place. Of all the performances his seems to me to be the most uninspired. Did Ebert see the same thing I did, Van Morrison belting out Caravan, or he sees a joy in a Rod Stewart film from the same era that he does not see in Levon Helm’s delivering of a historic vocal on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?

For me this is a damning death nail to Ebert’s credibility. I can’t imagine taking to heart his reviews again…

1 comment:

  1. I own The Last Waltz. I own a LOT of concerts on DVD. Live concerts are something I really enjoy. I completely agree with Ebert (and that is rare). I've watched the movie and really, REALLY tried to like it. It is just awful. I mean, pathetic. I watch the interviews and wonder if they were the inspiration for the interviews in Spinal Tap.

    Regarding Roger's comment about Joni's song, I think it was attempting to sum up his dissapointment with the performance (via a silly one liner) rather than the song itself. The performance really was pretty comically amateurish to me. It actually stood out to me as a low point in the movie as much as Michael Shriev's drum solo stands out as a high point in Woodstock.

    Oh, and the movie was so bad that I started doing a lot of web research on the movie. It quickly became apparent why it was so bad.