Like many younger fans of Levon Helm, my first real exposure to his music was from the film The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about The Band’s farewell concert, which took place in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day 1976. In the film’s opening sequence, The Band’s guitarist Robbie Robertson explains to Scorsese, “Winterland was the first place The Band played as The Band. Some friends showed up and helped us take it home.”
The Band’s “friends,” music legends such as Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Van Morrison and of course Bob Dylan, comprised arguably the greatest lineup of musical talent ever assembled in one place. But the heart of the film—what made it practically required viewing when I was in college only eight years ago—were the performances by The Band themselves. And at the center, literally and metaphorically, of the stage was Levon Helm, who died April 19 at 71.
Surrounded by the cymbals of his drum kit, Helm warbled, crooned and belted out “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight” (which The Band recorded later in the studio with the gospel and soul group The Staple Singers). Helm’s voice, befitting a boy from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, resonated throughout the exhausting set, lending raw power to songs that will surely be played for years to come.
I didn’t learn until long after seeing the film that Levon Helm hated The Last Waltz, and that it helped lead to a bitter split between him and Robertson, who were once close friends. Helm believed the film was structured to make Robertson appear as The Band’s leader. The two reportedly rarely spoke in the years after the film’s release. “As far as I was concerned,” Helm wrote in his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, “the movie was a disaster.”
While it might seem improper to celebrate a legend such as Helm with a film he despised, his clips remain the most powerful part of what is a great documentary. Helm wrote about how poor planning and bad recording ruined the capture of the concert. In post-production, Robertson and Scorsese reportedly had to overdub nearly everything, but not Levon Helm. His performance was spot on. It’s a gift left for us, containing some of the greatest work by an incredible musician, the likes of which we won’t see again.
“Up on Cripple Creek”
This was the first song The Band played at the concert. Near the end, when Helm called out, “I sure wish I could yodel,” it’s perhaps his purest expression of musical joy.
Filmed separately in a studio, “The Weight” features Helm kicking off the number before passing the vocals off to Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers. It is an inspired version of one of The Band’s greatest songs.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Helm was the only southerner in The Band—the rest were Canadian—and he wears the pain and suffering of ordinary people in the South late in the Civil War on his face from the song’s beginning until the final strike of his drum stick.
Levon Helm’s best performance in The Last Waltz. Filmed from just behind his head so you can see his breath blowing past the microphone, “Ophelia” is a surprisingly upbeat song about loss. The song ends and Levon looks to his left with an exhausted sigh and a shake of his fist—that’s the way I want to remember him.