After 16 long years on the road, The Band decided to call it a day with a farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland in 1976. (They'd starting out playing Arkansas rock 'n' roll bars, later backing Bob Dylan and writing some of the finest songs in American music of the 1960s and 70s.) They decided to invite some former collaborators and musicians they admired to take part. With Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others swiftly agreeing, guitarist Robbie Robertson had the bright idea of capturing the event with "a couple of video cameras". But the idea snowballed and before long a fully fledged concert movie was planned with seven 35mm film cameras and Martin Scorsese at the helm (playing truant from the set of New York, New York, which he was shooting at the time).
What emerged from Scorsese's edit suit two years later is far more than a concert movie. With the set from the San Francisco Opera's La Traviata and the chandeliers from Gone With The Wind as a backdrop, some of the best musicians from perhaps the most fruitful era of pop history had combined to produce a brilliant piece of entertainment - virtually a tapestry of every contemporary musical style from New Orleans boogie to Gospel to electric folk, to country.
As you'd imagine given the calibre of the artistes, there isn't a single unmemorable moment in this two hour set, culled from seven hours of actual music. But the highlight must be Muddy Waters' 'Mannish Boy' (which was only captured due to serendipity; Scorsese told the other DPs to take a break, but Lazlo Kovacs carried on filming unawares) with the legendary Chicago blues singer delivering a performance which is breathtaking in its freaky combination of nonchalance and intensity, and which fairly leaves the Band, who backed all their guests, for dust. Music snobs take note, this is the amazing, spiritual impact pop music can have in the hands of a true master.
The movie is ingeniously structured, interspersed other Band performances shot on MGM's sound stage in Los Angeles. The gig itself was punctuated with performances from poets like San Francisco's Michael McClure, who recited from The Canterbury Tales. The Band are interviewed at their Malibu hideout, the Shangri-La recording studio. With Scorsese asking the questions, they recall the highs and lows of their years on the road: for instance the time they were so skint they had to steal bread and baloney from a supermarket. The reminiscences, accompanied by many a grimace and rueful laugh, provide ample evidence not only of their love for music, but also their need to quit while they were ahead. The influence of these road-weary interjections on This Is Spinal Tap is not to be underestimated.
If the musicians were in great form on stage, Scorsese and his platoon of cameramen did full justice to their performance. With a shooting script split between seven cameras and honed line-by-line to the songs. Scorsese used long leisurely takes, concentrating on capturing the nuances of performance and imbuing the proceedings with a leisurely elegance. It's hard to think of more compelling concert movie, and for musicians and filmmakers alike, there's more inspiration crammed into these 117 minutes than you're likely to find in many another of its type.