Challenge Week 22: The Last Waltz and Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Most people haven’t themed their weeks at all, but Ryan McNeil of The Matinee opted to give me a double feature of concert/music docs, which is almost prescient, since I’ve recently been really interested to see more of those. Both of these two would’ve been high on my list, so I’m glad he pushed me toward them.

The Last Waltz is the record of The Band’s final concert in 1978, and one of the first times a single band’s concert was filmed and released in theatres (of course Woodstock and Monterey Pop predate The Last Waltz). Martin Scorsese directed (his interest in music has resulted in several other music-related documentaries since this), and captured the joy and energy of the concert with some great cinematography despite having to be careful not to interfere with the concert from the live audience’s point of view.

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I’ll have to admit my slapdash musical knowledge for both of these films – I’d heard exactly one song by The Band before watching this (“The Weight”), but this is a style of music I really enjoy so I’m sure I’ll be digging deeper into their discography soon. They also had an incredible number of special guests join them, from Bob Dylan (they were his backup band early in their career) to Neil Diamond to Emmylou Harris to Joni Mitchell. Only a couple of these people were identified on screen (with the band introducing them), so I have to admit again that I didn’t recognize several of them, though I could narrow some of them down.

The concert is intercut with interviews with the band – interview that aren’t totally biographical, but do give a snapshot of the time and place. Rather like a Woodstock that focuses on just one band. That’s one of the aspects of music documentaries that I really enjoy, how they act as a snapshot not just of a certain band or even just music, but of the cultural zeitgeist in general. Music seems to reflect its culture more than other arts, or maybe I’m just projecting. In this particular case it was interesting because The Band seems quite clean-cut in comparison with what you hear about other bands of the ’70s. Maybe that’s just the image they wanted to project for the film.

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It’s interesting that The Band got their start as a backup band, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown is about a band that never got the recognition they deserved because they stayed a backup band – despite creating the sound that would be forever associated with Motown. This is more of a wide-ranging documentary than The Last Waltz, not focusing on a single concert (though a reunion concert acts as a throughline and musical showcase – more on that in a minute) but highlighting the stories and accomplishments of The Funk Brothers in general and many of its members individually.

Of course, this gets into quite a bit of cultural commentary, as we’re talking about largely black musicians (there are a few white members, and that gets discussed as well) in Detroit in the late 1950s and into the 1960s using their jazz backgrounds to create a new jazz/rock fusion that found a home at Motown Records as the musical background for many of the biggest hits of the era – hits we associate with The Supremes, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, and others, but whose sound was largely determined by the Funk Brothers.

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Tying the film together is a reunion concert with the Funk Brothers finally named and given credit for their accomplishments, while modern artists like Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Me’shell Ndegeocello, and Chaka Khan. There were a few archival clips of the original songs and artists, but by and large the musical performances are these modern renditions – and I think that was a smart idea. First off, because we get to see how well these songs continue to work today, and also because it helps distinguish the song from the original artist with whom we associate them and tie the songs more closely to the Funk Brothers, which is the whole point of the documentary.

I thought it was interesting that both films played with the chronology a little – The Last Waltz started with the encore, then went back and did the rest of the concert largely chronologically. Meanwhile, Standing in the Shadows of Motown waited to show us the beginning of the reunion concert until nearly the end of the movie, which led to the biggest emotional punch of the film – when all the musicians came out, bringing large photographs of the ones who have passed on and setting them in their appropriate sections in places of honor. That wouldn’t have meant anything if they’d done that first, as we wouldn’t have known who they were. After hearing about their lives, their accomplishments, and their deaths, seeing them given that honor made for a definitely teary moment.

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That ability to pull tears, and show some cultural history that I didn’t know gave Standing in the Shadows of Motown the edge, though I enjoy The Band’s musical style more than Motown. Both these films were really great to watch, so thanks, Ryan!

Stats and stuff…

THE LAST WALTZ
1978, USA
directed by Martin Scorsese
starring The Band, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, etc

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how The Last Waltz entered my chart:

The Last Waltz > Successful Alcoholics
The Last Waltz > The Kid Brother
The Last Waltz < Clueless
The Last Waltz < Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
The Last Waltz < The Abyss
The Last Waltz < Trainspotting
The Last Waltz > Little Shop of Horrors
The Last Waltz > The Usual Suspects
The Last Waltz < The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The Last Waltz < Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs
The Last Waltz < Wait Until Dark
The Last Waltz > Cars 2

Final ranking #868 out of 3652 films on my chart (76%)

It is now my #4 Martin Scorsese film, my #20 Documentary, my #3 Concert film, my #7 Music film, and my #5 film of 1978.

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN
2002, USA
directed by Paul Justman
starring The Funk Brothers, Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Montell Jordan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, etc

Here’s how Standing in the Shadows of Motown entered my chart:

Standing in the Shadows of Motown > Successful Alcoholics
Standing in the Shadows of Motown > The Kid Brother
Standing in the Shadows of Motown < Clueless
Standing in the Shadows of Motown < Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Standing in the Shadows of Motown > The Abyss
Standing in the Shadows of Motown < To Kill a Mockingbird
Standing in the Shadows of Motown > Hero
Standing in the Shadows of Motown < Nanook of the North
Standing in the Shadows of Motown > The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
Standing in the Shadows of Motown > Jupiter Ascending
Standing in the Shadows of Motown < The Roaring Twenties

Final ranking #758 out of 3653 films on my chart (79%)

It is now my #15 Documentary, my #2 Concert film, my #5 Music film, and my #10 film of 2002.

These two films were recommended by Ryan McNeil, a film blogger friend and sometime collaborator. Averaging together the #868 and #758 rankings of these films gives Ryan an average ranking of 813.

A few more screenshots…

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