× Current About Archive Submit Editorial Board Salisbury University

“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation

The rock and roll film is an ideal subject for consideration in the field of adaptation studies.   The biopic is an obvious example, frequently based on autobiography, as in What’s Love Got to Do with It? (Brian Gibson, 1993) or Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), although sometimes the rock biopic is as much invention as history, as in The Buddy Holly Story (Steve Rash, 1978). But rock cinema has also occasionally adapted famous rock operas (Ken Russell’s Tommy, 1975) and even turned noted songs into feature-length films such as Rock Around the Clock (Fred Sears, 1956) and Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn, 1970).  Early 21st-century films have been “inspired” by the music of rock legends (Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, both 2007, which use the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, respectively).  David E. James, in his recent book on “cinema’s dance with popular music,” argues that the rock and roll film theorizes the music it represents in celluloid (19). That is, the rock and roll film offers an adaptation of the music on the screen. Indeed, as K.T. Donnelly suggests, “A whole zone of cinema makes more sense when approached from the perspective of the music industry rather than the film industry” (63).

The “rockumentary” effectively illustrates Donnelly’s argument, because many such films serve the purpose of promoting the artists in the film; before the arrival of home video cassette recorders, these films’ soundtrack albums often were best-selling, as in that for The Song Remains the Same, the Peter Clifton/Joe Massot 1976 concert film centered around Led Zeppelin’s three shows at Madison Square Garden in 1973.  By the 1980’s many concert films became what Doherty describes as the “cinematic analogue to vanity publishing” (12) that could be consumed on videocassette as easily as their soundtrack albums, and are mainly characterized as extensions of the marketing of the stars, rather than as adaptations of either an album or a stage show. (A possible exception to this, in terms of critical discourse, is Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Stop Making Sense, one of the most widely praised concert films of all time, about the Talking Heads’ stage show for its Speaking in Tongues tour, though little has been written about this film in academia).  Similarly,  I wish to argue that Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978) is more than a vanity project covering the Thanksgiving Day, 1976, farewell concert of The Band, the group of Canadian and American musicians who first gained notoriety backing Bob Dylan on his now-legendary “electric” tours and then became rock stars in their own right, making the cover of Time in 1970. Rather, the film is an adaptation of the themes as expressed in The Band’s most famous recordings – especially as those themes are articulated by rock critic Greil Marcus in his landmark book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music.  Intertwining The Band’s history with postwar American history and, specifically, postwar American music, The Last Waltz is, furthermore, an adaptation of the then-newly emerging field of rock historiography.

Since Robert Stam’s (2000) call for a dialogical approach to film adaptation, the field of adaptation studies has expanded its scope, though as Kamilla Elliott (2017) has noted, the field has had a difficult time incorporating theory, among other issues.  Films are seen to be more in dialogue not only with their source materials but with other “sources” that are not directly related to the “original.”  Elliott (2010), writing about the Tim Burton adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, notes that “in the wake of postmodern theories of pastiche, adaptation scholars are keenly aware that each cultural production draws on – and adapts – a host of prior cultural productions” (195).  Elliot refers to the various intertextual references in Burton’s film as “micro-adaptations” (197).  Walter Metz (2007) argues that An Injury to One, Travis Wilkerson’s 2002 documentary about the 1917 lynching of IWW union organizer Frank Little in the mining town of Butte, Montana,  is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest (among other intertexts Metz considers, like Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and Herman Biberman’s 1954 film Salt of the Earth).   Hammett, Metz notes, was a Pinkerton operative working in Butte at the time of Little’s efforts there, and he was offered $5000 to kill the organizer.  While Hammett did not take the offer, Little’s murder seemed to make the future novelist aware of the corruption of American capitalism.  The first flowering of his radicalization would appear in Red Harvest, with a minor character clearly based on Little.  For Metz, Wilkerson’s film is a radical adaptation of Hammett’s novel, as it jumps in time from Little’s 1917 murder to footage concerning Hammett’s arrest for refusing to name names in the McCarthyist hysteria of the period, the period of the Blacklist, on which Salt of the Earth director Biberman appeared. Metz argues that An Injury of One “reads Red Harvest in a deconstructive light, taking what is a violent, pessimistic novel that glorifies vigilantism, rips it out of its 1929 context, and re-scripts it as a prescient work of a 1950’s leftist besieged by McCarthyism” (311). Thomas Leitch’s (2008) essay on Robin Hood adaptations points out that all cinematic adaptations of the legendary hero have no specific source text off which to work. Leitch considers the implications of the idea of adaptations without sources as potentially destabilizing genre study, since many genre films too have nonexistent sources. This is why “Robin Hood is valuable” for adaptation studies, since the tale “challenges [the] regulatory model of ownership” (27) attributable, in Leitch’s view, to film and literary genres.  Recently (2017), I have argued that one way of seeing Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There is to consider it an adaptation of the specific musical texts and other writings of Bob Dylan; that the scenes involving the “Woody” persona are an adaptation of Dylan’s first recording; that the “Billy The Kid” scenes are an adaptation of Dylan’s famous “Basement Tapes,” and so on.  David Johnson (2009) argues that the 2001 Stacy Peralta documentary about the 1970’s American skateboarding scene, Dogtown and Z-Boys, is an adaption of the photographs and writings of the chief chronicler of the phenomenon, the artist/photographer Craig Stecyk, who served as a production designer of the film.  For Johnson, considering the film “as adaption and documentary” allows us to “gain access to some important issues that both adaptation studies and documentary studies might productively explore” (10-11).

From this recent territory,  I claim that The Last Waltz creates a version of both the thematic concerns of The Band’s music and of its history, using its cinematic techniques dialogically toward two contradictory impulses.  The Last Waltz does not have a specific source text, and I am not examining the film in the context of documentary theory and criticism, though I will refer to some noted readings of the film in that context.   I seek to move in and out of critical textual citations in my consideration of the film by working along two critical axes. The first axis examines the dynamic between the thematic concerns of The Band’s music (largely drawing from Marcus) and those of Scorsese’s films, notably Mean Streets.  The second axis sees the film as Scorsese’s adaptation of the narrative history of The Band and that history’s relation to American cultural history.  The film’s expressionistic visual style and editing, influenced in part by the circumstances of production, create a tension between storytelling as (frequently fragmented, discontinuous) process and story as final (coherent) product, in the case of The Band a mournful if not tragic history leading to a clear, elegiac, and discrete conclusion.

Worried Men

In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus situates The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink, in the context of its history of nearly a decade of working in bars and joints while traversing North America.  The music evokes a history of American popular music, though, as Marcus and fellow Rolling Stone critic Ed Ward observe, they accomplished this blend almost entirely on their own terms, sounding familiar yet paradoxically wholly unique.  As Ward puts it, “without quoting or making direct reference, verbal or musical, to country music, 19th century parlor and military music, or any of the patriotic poets like Whitman, Sandburg and Lowell, [The Band] seemed to evoke all these things and more, entirely on its own terms” (311).  Evoking another national institution in his liner notes for the 1994 compilation box set Across the Great Divide, Chet Flippo calls The Band “the Smithsonian of American rock and roll” (6). The words of the debut album, Marcus says, tell the story of a single character, one who fits the mold of Walter Benjamin’s description of “the Storyteller” as one who has traveled the breadth of the land in search of a place to settle down and tell those tales to family and neighbors (84-85). They tell  the story of “the worried man,” who is on this album traveling through the land called America and finding it “complicated, dangerous, and alive” (Marcus 39). The worried man “is obsessed by choices he never asked for, because he sees too clearly to avoid the guilt and fear that worm out of the Bible” (47); he also “finds himself caught up with his fellow men and women, and inevitably, their troubles become his” (50).  The man meets a cast of characters – “tricksters, fortune tellers, mummers, lunatics, witch doctors, cops, and lovers” (47) – all pulling him in a number of directions, sending him on dangerous missions, warning him of other dangers, and putting obligations before him.  In guitarist Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight,” the album’s signature song, the worried man searches for rest but can find none, and as he encounters biblical-type characters, some of whom are waiting for Judgment Day, he finds himself asked to take on their burdens, unable to say no.  The music, as much as the lyrics, creates “the weary, fated sense of a situation that simply cannot be escaped” (49). This, then, is central theme for The Band, as expressed by Marcus: “What do men and women owe each other? How do they keep faith? How far can that faith be pushed before it breaks?” (191)

The Band’s second album, simply called The Band, is described by Marcus as the “map” that the worried man was missing (53).  Beginning with “Across the Great Divide,” the album establishes its central theme: the “divides” are numerous, from men/women, Canada/America, city/country, past/present, North/South, and “between the Band and their new audience” (54), the audience that had just discovered them with the release of their first record. The songs evoke “the fragments of experience, legend, and artifact every American has inherited as a legacy of a mythical past”(55). The most apparent manifestation of that mythical past is the song Robertson wrote for drummer/singer Levon Helm, the only American, born in Arkansas: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which Ward describes sounding as if it could have been written in 1865, but which Marcus observes is less about the Civil War than “the way each American carries a version of that event” (55) within themselves.  As part of the trend of the era’s rock critics evoking American literature when writing about The Band, Ralph Gleason’s review suggests that only Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is comparable in presenting “the overwhelming human sense of history.”  Throughout, place and time interact to build this remarkable map that traverses American history and American musical history, themes that become central to The Last Waltz.

Scorsese was approached to film The Band’s farewell concert, itself called “The Last Waltz,” through their road manager, Jonathan Taplin.  Taplin had helped Scorsese make what would be his breakthrough film, Mean Streets, in 1973, raising $500,000 dollars to finance it, then selling it to Warner Brothers for distribution. It’s easy to see what might have attracted Scorsese to agree to the project, despite being in the midst of making New York, New York. Scorsese told Christian Science Monitor film critic David Sterritt, “Musicians are…a subculture, just like the guys in Mean Streets” (qtd in Keyser 102). The circumstances of the worried man are akin to those of Charlie, Mean Streets’ protagonist. Charlie is pulled in different directions.  As a serious (not to say “devout”) Catholic, Charlie knows that “you don't pay for your sins in church; you do it on the street.”  Unlike his friends, who don’t take their Catholicism seriously, Charlie seeks to live a life along the precepts of St. Francis of Assisi, but remains a part of the world of petty Mafiosi. His girl Teresa puts the contradictions succinctly: “Saint Francis didn’t run numbers.”  Charlie rationalizes his choices in that world as part of serving penance for his sins, notably his efforts to curb his friend Johnny Boy’s self-destructive behavior.  Against his connected uncle’s advice, he stays involved with his friends (and with Teresa – their relationship is understood as needing to be kept a secret), trying to resolve the various difficulties each has with the other, but he cannot  manage these various obligations; Scorsese’s worried man of the East Side is even more fated than the character who traverses the various landscapes on Music from Big Pink and The Band.

Some of the more famous stories of the making of the documentary point toward at least a surface-level notion of the conception of the film as an adaptation of The Band’s music and history.  One is Robertson and Scorsese’s preparation of a shooting script for the filming of the concert; Robertson provided Scorsese with the information about each song being performed including the lyrics and singer, and Scorsese prepared camera positions and lighting sequences, song by song, line by line. Another story is that of production designer Boris Leven’s use of the San Francisco Opera’s La Traviata set, connecting the concert to the art of dramatic storytelling via song; indeed, Scorsese has said that he considered the film an opera, and compared it to Powell/Pressburger’s adaptation Tales of Hoffman.  While the script was essentially abandoned by the time the concert began, owing to a range of factors (such as the inability of the camera crew to hear each other over the noise), it is easy enough to give examples of how the images from the concert are visualizations of the Band’s music, again on a surface level.  The isolated shots of bass player Rick Danko singing “Stage Fright,” for example, reflect the isolation of the character being described in the song’s lyrics; he is, as the lyrics state, “caught in the spotlight” (see Fig. 1).   But describing the visualizations of the songs could tend toward seeing The Last Waltz as a disparate collection of music videos interspersed with interview footage; while such a reading of the film has certain critical possibilities, the film’s structure in fact creates a tension between a presentation of The Band’s history as fragmentary and a presentation of that history as a cohesive “rise and fall” narrative arc.

“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: "He got caught in the spotlight": Rick  Danko in The Last Waltz

A consideration of the opening scenes of Mean Streets and The Last Waltz illustrates the way Scorsese draws the connections between the Little Italy he presents in the earlier film and the world of the musicians he documents in the later one. After the prescriptive title shot that recommends “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD,” The Last Waltz, like Mean Streets, opens in darkness with voices talking.  In the documentary, the voices belong to Scorsese and an assistant, checking to make sure the equipment is working.  We also hear Rick Danko say “cutthroat.” The first image we see is of a pool table, and the camera pans to reveal Danko as Scorsese asks “OK, Rick--what's the game?” Danko, holding a cue, replies “Cutthroat.” “What's the object?” “The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.” This summary echoes the ethos of the Mean Streets of Charlie’s Little Italy, and like Charlie’s opening lines about paying for your sins in the streets, serve to establish a theme for the film: survival. As the film cuts between shots of Danko shooting pool (with other members also standing by and holding cues), the sound track blends the sound of the game with the sound of an audience until the film cuts to the empty Winterland stage.  The musicians begin to enter, and Robbie Robertson talks to the audience: “You’re still here, huh? We’re gonna do one more and that’s it.” Beginning with the final encore of the concert, Scorsese shows each member individually and presents a title identifying each one, much the way he introduces the four main characters in Mean Streets with titles, as we see each guy engaged in his “occupation” (see Fig. 2 & 3). After the final song, and The Band exit the stage, Scorsese cuts to shots involving the only exteriors of the film: tracking shots from inside a car of the local streets near Winterland and the crowd waiting outside to enter the ballroom. The shots have a self-conscious quality to them, as we can see the frame of the car window as the street scenes pass us; this is akin to the shot of the movie projector that shows us home movies over the opening credits of Mean Streets, footage which includes shots of the San Gennaro feast (see Fig. 4 & 5). Just as the fiction film will take the audience into the comparatively small world that Charlie and his friends occupy, the documentary will step into the hermetic world that exists within the chaos of rock stardom.  Where Mean Streets will present characters in ethical and moral contradictions, The Last Waltz examines the artists engaged in aesthetic ones. 

“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2:  Introducing The Band: The Last Waltz
“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Introducing the Guys: Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973)
“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Seeing the frame: from the car outside Winterland, The Last Waltz
“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: The projector, about to show home movies in Mean Streets


Barry Sarchett argues that Scorsese’s cinematic style, in particular his editing strategy, foregrounds The Last Waltz as a construction, a metadocumentary.  Although, in Sarchett’s view, the repetition of performances “exploits” the sense of loss permeating the event itself, the interspersing of interviews between performances does not allow for the audience to slide into an easy sense of nostalgia.  Sarchett sees the meta-documentary discourse particularly at work in the film’s constant shifts in chronology, both in the presentation of performances from the concert (the film begins with the very final song) and in the history that the interviews tell.  This “refusal to provide any consistent or normative sense of sequence helps explain...the uncanny intensity of the film” (31, ellipsis added). A crucial element of that intensity is created by the tension between chronology and synchrony, between The Band’s history as a singular one with a clear beginning and ending and that history as a series of fragmentary moments, as part of the discontinuous chronologies of American history.  This tension  is established after the opening credits: in his first on-screen interview, Robbie Robertson explains the reason for having a farewell concert: “We wanted it to be a celebration.” When Scorsese inquires, “Celebration of what, the beginning or the end?” Robbie’s somewhat facetious answer – “the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning” – actually gets to the heart of the matter.  The Winterland ballroom was the site of The Band’s first public performance using their new name, thus implying that the group’s career has come full-circle.  But to complete the circle in that manner ignores the group’s early history, a history that is addressed and shared with numerous emblematic stories about their life on the road prior to their fame. The Last Waltz is composed and, especially, edited to emphasize the tension between the “unfinalizable” quality of history/storytelling, of the life-giving power of popular music’s storytelling, and the elegiac sense that these particular storytellers have no more stories to tell.

Perhaps such a characterization of The Band as “finished” storytellers is unfair, given the insight in to the group’s history in the interviews. It was in fact Robertson who urged Scorsese to include interviews with the Band as part of the film, rather than just showing the concert itself.  This tends to affirm Steven Severn’s argument that the film is really a calling card to Hollywood from Robertson, who is credited as the film’s producer; Severn links “Robbie,” the persona we see on the screen, to other Scorsese heroes of the era, notably De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.  (Following Severn, I refer to “Robbie,” the “character” and “star” of the film, when discussing that persona on stage and in interviews, and to “Robertson” when referring to his role in the context of the film’s production and his role as the principal songwriter; “Robbie” is thus read as a projection of Robertson’s Hollywood ambitions.)  The interviews constitute one of several obvious ways that The Last Waltz sets itself apart from its famous concert predecessors like Monterey Pop and Woodstock.  Where the earlier films situate themselves in the present historical moment, The Last Waltz uses interviews to construct The Band in broader historical context.  In that first onscreen interview, Robbie offers an extremely short history of the group’s career – “eight years of dives and bars, eight years of arenas and stadiums” – and, prodded by Scorsese, explains that the “friends” who made guest appearances during the concert were “some of the biggest influences in music, on a whole generation.”   (Robbie also takes control of this interview, by at one point telling Scorsese, “ask me that [question] again” in the manner of calling for another “take,” like a record producer – or a director.) These short interviews, interspersed throughout the film in between song performances, construct a history of The Band that is both individual and social.  That history is not told in strict chronological order, and even within individual interviews, a choppy editing style (caused by the need to do multiple takes) further emphasizes the storytelling’s fragmentary character.  In these interviews we learn of the group’s early years with Ronnie Hawkins; of the struggles they had when they struck out on their own as the Hawks; brief mention of their working with Bob Dylan (a story that was probably well-known to audiences by 1978); of the decision to change their names from the Hawks to The Band; the lifestyle they led when they settled in upstate New York and began putting their songs together for that first album; and brief speculation on what comes next now that the farewell concert is behind them.

The interviews also serve to function as a placement of The Band in a larger historical picture. As Robbie, Rick Danko, and pianist-singer Richard Manuel tell of a performance at a joint in Fort Worth, amusing themselves as they recall a fight breaking out despite the club’s being practically empty, the film cuts to a profile shot of Robbie, saying, “we found out later that it was Jack Ruby’s club.”  (See Fig. 6) This cut and profile shot emphasize the significance of the information Robbie shares, a deliberate insertion of The Band into American history. Other interviews point to American music history in particular:  Levon Helm, in two separate segments, talks about local tent shows in the Deep South featuring an adult-oriented late-night show called the Midnight Ramble, and about the intermixing of music cultures in Memphis that led to the birth of rock and roll. A group interview tells the story of traveling to Helm’s hometown in Arkansas and meeting famous blues harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson; an interview with Robbie and Levon concerning New York explains their meeting many of the famous songwriters who had provided so many early rock and roll hits like Doc Pomus and Mort Schuman, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and many others, and Robbie notes that “the Sixties” led to a new generation of songwriters who no longer stayed behind the scenes, much as the members of the Hawks stepped out on their own rather than remain a backup group.

“The Beginning of the Beginning of the End of the Beginning”: The Last Waltz and/as Adaptation
Thomas Grochowski, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: "We found out years later that it was Jack Ruby's club": Robbie Robertson (r.)  inserts The Band into American History as Rick Danko (l.) laughs, The Last Waltz


Like the interviews, the performances – both at the concert and on an MGM soundstage – present The Band’s individual history in broader context. The Band’s music, as I’ve noted, existed along a spectrum of the history of American popular culture.  Leighton Grist observes that The Last Waltz “sketches developments within popular and rock music from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s” (28). The performances pay homage to The Band’s musical roots: Ronnie Hawkins joins them onstage for a cover of Bo Diddley’s foundational song “Who Do You Love” (which Hawkins and the Hawks had recorded in the late 1950s); the sound of New Orleans is represented by Dr. John; blues by Muddy Waters, gospel by the Staples, and country by Emmylou Harris.  The contemporary music scene, the extension of these influences, is represented by their fellow Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, blues contemporaries Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield, Irish soul-blues songwriter Van Morrison, and former boss Bob Dylan.  Given Scorsese’s own considerable knowledge of rock music past and present (see Hoskyns), we can in particular read the film’s editing between performances and interviews as Scorsese’s adaptation of rock music history, and, given the self-conscious characteristic of the film’s overall structure, Scorsese’s meditation on rock historiography.  The writing of rock music history itself was only in its earliest stages, with Nik Cohn’s Pop from the Beginning published in 1969 and Charlie Gillett’s publishing The Sound of the City, which had begun as a Master’s thesis, in 1970.  The stories The Band tell resemble the kind of legends that contributed to the inchoate Robin Hood tales briefly outlined by Leitch, and are not told in any specific order: the performances are not chronological in relation to the original concert’s song order; the musicians don’t appear along any historical timeline; and the stories the musicians tell don’t present The Band’s history in a wholly linear fashion.  Perhaps it is fitting that those stories get shared in the film in a manner that resists chronology; such a telling acknowledges that history is a palimpsest, of multiple texts that bleed across one another in time and space. Or, “the beginning of the beginning of the end of the beginning.”

Yet despite an overall editing structure that rejects chronology, The Last Waltz cannot fully escape the overall elegiac tone set early on by Robbie’s “goodnight/goodbye” farewell to the audience, and carried through in his scattered comments regarding why he felt the need to quit touring, referring to “the road” in that metaphoric way scholars of American literature and film know very well.  In a sense, The Last Waltz is a kind of road movie1, about the effects of the road on those who travel it in the name of art, as illustrated in the story Robbie tells of playing all night with Sonny Boy Williamson, who pauses every so often to spit blood into a bucket while playing the harmonica. While the stories told come from the road, the overall defining theme is that this is the end of the road for The Band. Christopher Garbowski sees the presence of the La Traviata set as adding to the sense of decadence of the concert; that decadence is also evident by the obvious presence of drugs and alcohol that has clearly left its mark –sometimes right there in clods of white stuff hanging from noses – on these artists.   Robbie’s early comment that “some friends showed up to help us take it home” acknowledges the sense of finality to the event. The final song of the main concert event is the final concert performance shown in the film: the entire cast of friends coming onto the stage to sing Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” following the Music From Big Pink arrangement. The slow panning across the stage, now loaded with so many of the rock stars whose bloated stardoms would become the focal point of punk rock’s rage, further adds to this sense of a generation’s history coming to an end. Despite the discontinuity in the presentation of The Band’s history, through that palimpsest emerges an elegiac if not tragic arc, of The Band’s artistic journey, its movement from the creators of art that was engaged with its community to rock stars separated from that community, from a band of brothers struggling collectively on the road to a separation of that band in the form of its farewell concert (and in its focusing so much on one member, Robbie, clearly identifying him as the prime mover behind the group’s “retirement” from the road). The Band’s trajectory is outlined by Marcus in Mystery Train: after the release of their first two records, which were highly praised and made them stars, the pressures of stardom would affect them greatly. They had become tentative, and demonstrated this on their third album, calling it Stage Fright. By the middle seventies, with most of their act coming from their late-sixties albums, The Band “seemed to say that they had lost trust in the country, in themselves, and each other” (Marcus 60).  They turned inward, away from certain pressures, unable to connect to its audience, and feeling a sense of guilt at betraying the dreams that made them play together in the first place.   The group had retreated from their audience not too long after the failure of their fourth album, and Richard Manuel’s own personal troubles with booze and drugs left them with only one main songwriter; Robertson took over the group as manager and spokesman. But as Marcus says, “because the group was no longer truly whole, Robbie could not really draw on it; since his links to the country and to his audience were no longer strong, he could no longer see the country or his audience clearly” (63).  This sense of a lack of wholeness is clearly evident in the interviews, with Robbie clearly distanced from the rest of the group, and in the concert footage itself, which almost completely avoids showing the Winterland audience and which focuses so heavily on Robbie even though he was not a lead singer. Levon Helm, in his memoir (275), states that, for the show – as was the usual custom for concert performances – Roberton’s microphone was turned off, though he did sing into it; the film thus creates a false sense of the authenticity of the performance. As the artist becomes disconnected, argues Marcus, the creative spirit withers away, can no longer say anything meaningful.  As J. P. Telotte puts it, the film negotiates the “fundamental human tensions...between life and death, art and reality, the expressive spirit and those limitations it encounters in the self and in our far from expressive world” (13, ellipsis added).

Scorsese seems to sense these crises for the members of the group; its most obvious manifestation is a short interview with Rick Danko near the end of the film where, in a recording studio, Scorsese asks, “what’s next?”  As a song Danko has recorded begins to play in the control room, he answers, “making music…staying busy,” but Scorsese films Danko’s head bowing down slowly, and emphasizes the bow with slow-motion, as if the musician is lost, unsure what really is going to be next; given the life he’s led the last sixteen years it’s not surprising that he would feel a sense of loss.   But throughout The Last Waltz one can see that sense of the group being distanced from its audience.  The decision to focus only on the stage during the performances may have had more pedestrian reasons (including concert producer Bill Graham’s requirements that the cameras not block the audience’s sightlines), but its effect was correctly characterized by Telotte as a hermetic world apart from that audience, as symbolized by the final sequence of the film: The Band on the sound stage, playing the “Last Waltz Theme,” the camera pulling back and showing the large spotlights on either side of the performers, looking like a piece of celluloid. But where Telotte sees that world as a “safe” place for The Band to work out their creative tendencies without the tensions of life on the road, the film suggests that, divorced from their audiences, The Band will be unable to make music that matters in the way it did in the late sixties.  In this reading, then, the staging of the concert itself at the very same locale where they played their first concert as The Band, brings the narrative to a close by completing a circle that had begun the moment they stepped out from the shadows and entered the arena of rock stardom. 


As the field of adaptation studies continues to stake out new territories – and at times struggle with theoretical and methodological approaches – I see The Last Waltz as one text that can pave the way for an understanding of the rock and roll film as a genre of adaptation. Indeed in my teaching of the rock and roll film for the last twenty years, the selection of a corpus of films has always led to a syllabus that seems to cut across multiple genres.  Working from the idea of the rock film as an adaptation, I am finding a means through which to continue theorizing about the films I screen and study.  In his concluding chapter to the Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, Leitch poses a question: What does labeling and reading a text as an adaptation allow it to do that other readings don’t?” (706). As I examine The Last Waltz, I have been asking myself that question.  The film has been examined within the context of the rock concert documentary form; within the context of Martin Scorsese’s career; as a calling card for its producer-star Robbie Robertson, and so on.  For me, Scorsese’s film remains significant for how it calls attention to the entire process of storytelling and history-telling.  Because The Band’s greatest work has crossed over so many musical and thematic lines, and because their story, too, has been about border crossings, Scorsese encapsulates these elements through the choices he made in the editing room in shooting additional performances on the soundstage.  He adapts these themes and the acts of history-writing as part of a commentary on the struggle between a world that makes no sense and a human need to make sense of it.


1  I am indebted to Timothy Corrigan for this suggestion.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. Shocken, 1968, pp. 83-109.

Doherty, Thomas. Review of Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme. Film Quarterly, Vol. 38, no. 4, 1985, pp. 12-16.

Donnelly, K.T.  Magical Musical Tour: Rock and Pop in Film Soundtracks.  Bloomsbury, 2015.

Elliott, Kamilla. “Adaptation as Compendium: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.” Adaptation, vol 3, no.2, 2010, pp. 193-201.

---. “Adaptation Theory and Adaptation Scholarship.” The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, edited by Thomas Leitch, Oxford UP, 2017, pp. 679-697.

Flippo, Chet. Liner notes. Across the Great Divide, The Band. Capitol Records, 1994.

Garbowski, Christopher. “The Catholic Imagination in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.” Journal of Religion and Film, vol 5, no.2, 2001, https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol5/iss2/2 . Accessed 30 January 2019.

Grist, Leighton.  The Films of Martin Scorsese 1977-1999: Authorship and Context II.  Palgrave, 2013.

Gleason, Ralph. Rev. of The Band. Rolling Stone 16 October 1969, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/the-band-179326/.  Accessed 26 January 2019.

Grochowski, Thomas. “Full of Big Ideas, Images and Distorted Facts: The Pastiche of Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.” Post Script, vol 37, no.1, 2017, pp. 39-51.

Helm, Levon and Steven Davis. This Wheel’s On Fire.  A Capella Press, 2000.

Hoskyns, Barney.  Across the Great Divide: The Band and America. Hal Leonard, 2006. E-book.

James, David E. Rock‘n’Film: Cinema’s Dance with Popular Music. Oxford UP, 2016.

Johnson, “Playgrounds of Unlimited Potential: Adaptation, Documentary, and Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Adaptation, vol.2, no.1, 2009, pp. 1-16.

Keyser, Les. Martin Scorsese. Twayne’s Filmmakers Series, 1992.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptations Without Sources: The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 36, no.1, 2008, pp. 21-30.

---.  “Against Conclusions: Petit Theories and Adaptation Studies.” The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, edited by Thomas Leitch, Oxford UP, 2017, pp. 698-710.

Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music, 3rd ed. Dutton, 1990.

Metz, Walter.  “Documentary as Adaptation: An Intertextual Analysis of ‘An Injury to One.’” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 35, no .4, 2007, pp. 307-312.

Sarchett, Barry. “‘Rockumentary’” as Metadocumentary: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.” Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 22, no.1, 1994, pp. 28-35.

Severn, Steven. “Robbie Robertson’s Big Break: A Reevaluation of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.” Film Quarterly, vol. 56, no.2, Winter 2002, pp. 25-31.

Stam, Robert. “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation, edited by James Naremore, Rutgers University Press, 2000, pp. 54-76.

Telotte. J.P. “Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’ and the Concert Genre.” Film Criticism , vol. 4, no. 2, Winter 1980, pp. 9-20.

Ward.  “The Band.”  The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, 2nd edition, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980, pp. 309-313.