Washinton, D.C. – They ended their final show with a song called "Don't Do It," but the Band broke up anyway.
The film The Last Waltz chronicles the final live performance by the Band after 16 years on the road. And now the classic concert flick is hitting theaters again in celebration of its 25th anniversary.
At the time, the event was billed by promoters as "an historic rock 'n' roll event." The movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, was called "a landmark concert film." And the soundtrack was pegged as "a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of world class talent." But critics, while saying the music was fantastic, called the whole event much too grandiose.
However, the Band's keyboardist, Garth Hudson, said that this time around, critics should have a hard time calling the re-release glitzy.
"The film will not appear overblown to kids these days," Hudson said in an interview from his home in Glenford, N.Y., near Woodstock. "Just look at a Janet Jackson video."
Even the modern events celebrating the film — a $60 four-CD boxed-set hitting stores April 23, a $25 DVD coming out May 7, and a star-studded premiere in New York — are tame in comparison with the over-the-top music extravaganzas of today, such as Ozzy Osbourne's Ozzfest.
Rolling Stone magazine's Anthony DeCurtis said today's artists are routinely garish. The Last Waltz, he said, is evidence of how the industry has changed since the event was first called self-serving.
"What seemed an indulgence the first time around is now very real," DeCurtis said. "It comes across that the performances are very strong."
Indeed, The Last Waltz pays tribute to a time in music history when the performers were perhaps not as slick as the current crop of stars, but whose talent seemed unique and genuine.
In addition to the Band — guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, piano man Richard Manuel and Hudson — the show featured Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Muddy Waters.
Scorsese, known for such classics as Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, stands by the authenticity of his documentary. "It wasn't flash, it wasn't phony theatrics, it was people expressing themselves with music," he said in a "featurette" available on the DVD.
DeCurtis said seeing the film again on the big screen captures that feeling of joy.
"Watching it in the theatre it was difficult to tell where the applause was coming from, the film or from people in the theater," DeCurtis said.
Reflecting on the 25th anniversary, Hudson, who also had a solo debut this year called The Sea to the North, said it's the musical guests who provide the historical context and help the film and its soundtrack remain vital.
"In The Last Waltz, Muddy Waters stands out as being remarkable," Hudson said. "The song Manish Boy is a piece of music I'd listened to since 1958. We were able to play it in a way that couldn't be duplicated."
Despite 25 years apart, the Band is still rife with tension.
Levon Helm wrote in his 1993 book, This Wheel's on Fire, that he "didn't want to break up the Band."
Robertson, who was instrumental in producing the 25th anniversary material, did want to call it quits, and as he said on the DVD, "I feel good about wrapping up something so you can unwrap something else."
Other former band members have passed away. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986, so there are few left to offer insight.
Asked if it was difficult to re-release The Last Waltz amid tension between Helm and Robertson, Hudson quickly said no.
Yet alluding to the Band's seemingly inevitable break up, he said, "The rehearsal for The Last Waltz had been going on within each individual in the Band for years."
Despite any bad blood or past grievances, The Last Waltz conjures a moment in rock history that now seems refreshingly real, and ultimately, it's the music that matters, Hudson said.
"We took a good piece and made it hotter by re-mixing it is all we did," he said.