Dir: Martin Scorsese
The Band were a collection of powerful musicians who backed Screaming Ronnie Hawkins and later Bob Dylan. Along the way, they created their own sound of blues, folk, bluegrass, and rock and roll crafted through years on the road. In 1976 they ended with a final concert at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom.
As the list of stars grew greater, the band approached friend Martin Scorsese for his advice on filming the event for the archives. Scorsese undertakes a full 35 millimeter filming of the event. Scorsese does a great job of capturing the music. The cameras gather the power of rock musicians whose emotions come through in their voices and faces.
The musical highlights of the event include Dr. John whose lightning piano work meets up with The Band who segues into bayou swamp music seamlessly. The originator, Muddy Waters, busts forth with a stunning blues rap that crushes Eric Clapton who follows him. Neil Young performs “helpless” rocking his shabby enthusiasm and stalwart authenticity for all it’s worth.
Neil Diamond rocks out in a contribution that seems faintly out of place. Van Morrison (who really resembles what I imagine a young MAP) explodes with his English psycho scat. And despite having been Bob Dylan’s backing band, his contributions seem pale in comparison to the energy of other performers. Now I’m not enough of a Dylan fan to know if 1976 was a good year or a bad year for Dylan, but his contributions don’t make the movie sing.
The backstage interviews are refreshingly unscripted. The Band smokes everything imaginable, mumble unclearly and often rant (usually about having sex). They are breaking up behind the scenes and the egos are raw.
Only a couple of women show up in this guy-fest, but they make a strong showing. The Staples Singers showcasing Mavis Staples and Pop Staples are the highlight of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Joni Mitchell offers the strongest juxtaposition; Scorsese layers her song Coyote with the boys talking about having sex on the road.
Great old-school musicianship shows up in the film. We see the members of the band jamming with old-timey classics and leading full horn sections. Drummer Levon Helm’s voice soars and the guitar licks of Robbie Robertson are strong (even if his microphone was turned off – Robertson was a notoriously bad singer).
The DVD includes good outtakes, two commentary tracks (including a staggering number of the musicians in the show), and loads of discussion from Scorsese. Check out this film if you are a fan of the music or the director. It presents an era, some awesome fashion, and some great tunes and along the way creates the template for many other concert videos.