Many have called this the greatest rock documentary ever made, but it’s not like the competition is especially fierce. Filmed on Thanksgiving Day 1976, it’s a farewell concert by the Band (who would return in diminished form in the ’90s) and special guest icons. All of it is atmospherically captured by Martin Scorsese in a kind of plush-noir style appropriate for the end-of-an-era undertones and the kind of mid-’70s decadence and by-god-I-survived-the-’60s ether that howls through the bones of the likes of a Bob Dylan, enigmatic under a big white hat as he sings “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”
It’s an all-star affair, but the tilt is specifically folk-rock-y with some blues and gospel — maybe a little too specific to be a “greatest rock” anything, but then again not the kind of mainstream and bloated stuff that punk, waiting in the wings for its influential moment, was rebelling against. Much of the music is very good in a way that seems nearly timeless.
For Scorsese, this might have been a bit of a retreat — he was still working on his somber (and oddly hostile) musical, New York, New York, at the time and had probably reached the point where he realized that it and he were in a bit of trouble. Here he keeps things fairly simple, the performance footage intimate (no sign of an audience) and with a minimum of not very informative talking heads. Aside from Dylan, there’s Neil Young keening “Helpless,” Van Morrison (not yet having sunk into a sea of endless vamps) belting out a signature “Caravan” and heartfelt if no-ways-definitive turns by Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Dr. John (who’s nobody’s icon, but what the heck).
Best of all, the film, restored for its 25th anniversary, reminds one of how good The Band was at coming up with rangy, instantly mythic-sounding songs and putting them across with an authenticity that was all the more impressive for not being quite real. There’s more than a little artifice in their backwoods-rural lyrics but, for instance, during an insert of a studio performance of “The Weight” augmented by the Staple Singers (and with Scorsese switching to a more loose-limbed style) you’re convinced, at least for the duration of the song, that it’s one of the greatest ever written.
Maybe not “greatest rock,” but that’s OK.
Showing exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.