With apologies to Stop Making Sense, the greatest rock movie of all-time is The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s artful presentation of The Band’s last concert ever. More than that, it’s a reunion - or, as Band leader Robbie Robertson called it, a “celebration” - of The Band’s favorite collaborators, which include icons of classic rock. From Ronnie Hawkins, who gave The Band their first gig (his pitch, according to Robertson: “You won’t make much money, but you’ll get more [women] than Frank Sinatra.”), to Bob Dylan.
The movie also marks what Band drummer Levon Helm called in his memoirs a “high watermark of sartorial bad taste in the ‘70s.” Viewed from the balcony of patrician good taste (or, apparently, even the porch of rural poverty that produced Levon Helm), that is surely the case. But the clothes in The Last Waltz aim at a different target, and, in my view, hit that target right in the balls.
As you might guess from the Hawkins job contract, The Band played some seedy joints in their day. Robertson tells one story of playing a large venue whose roof had blown off a few years earlier (“and that’s when they started calling it ‘The Skyline Lounge’”). Their music includes anthems to the combustible mix of rebellious poverty, piety, and derringdo that characterizes the American South (“Out of my nine lives, I’ve spent seven / Now how in the world do you get to heaven?” from ‘The Shape I’m In’). This isn’t the story of a group of guys who managed to work their way up from footman to lord of the manor and now call themselves gentlemen. If they had a manor they’d probably trade it for its weight in whisky. And yet somehow they managed to book the Winterland Ballroom for their final concert, and call it “The Last Waltz.” And they intend to enjoy it.
But the pinnacle of the show, both musically and sartorially, is Robertson. He wears a simple dark suit, but with a polyester shirt that’s soaked in sweat by the second verse of “Up On Cripple Creek,” its 6-inch collar petting his clavicles with every beat. Around his neck is a tongue-red silk scarf, somewhere between priest’s robe and ready tourniquet. The scarf stays for the whole concert, even though the jacket is gone by the time everyone’s on stage together for “Forever Young.”
It might all look just sleazy if the music weren’t so damn good. The force and honesty of the music is what makes you realize that the clothing is kind of half a joke, but the people are definitely not. By the ‘80s, the clothes were superficially the same in some ways - Bon Jovi wore scarves on stage, Marvin Gaye wore sleazy-looking tuxedos - but by then it was all show, with none of The Band’s vitality.
Everyone has so much fun on stage, you wonder how they could possibly give it up, and that’s the last question Scorsese asks Robertson. “The road was our school,” he responds. “It gave us a sense of survival. It taught us all we know. But there’s not much left that we can really take from the road. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life. No question about it.”
Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in April 2015.