The Last Waltz is a concert film directed by Martin Scorsese about a star-studded “retirement” show by The Band that occurred 40 years ago on Thanksgiving day in San Francisco. The co-stars are Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, and about another half-dozen rock stars from the ’60s and ’70s. Every year around this time, I try to watch The Last Waltz at least once, in the way that people watch A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life whenever mid-December rolls around. I’ve come to regard The Last Waltz — and I preface this by offering sincere apologies to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — as the greatest Thanksgiving movie ever. That’s not simply because The Last Waltz takes place on the holiday, but also because this film embodies what’s wonderful, horrible, hilarious, and moving about one of this country’s most sacred annual traditions, and how many of us manage to survive it. Other films have used Thanksgiving as a backdrop. But to me, The Last Waltz is Thanksgiving.
Allow me to recount the plot of The Last Waltz: A dysfunctional family of five brothers has decided to stop living together. Before they split up, they invite a coterie of friends dressed in colorful suits and floppy hats over for a holiday celebration. Despite years of pent-up resentment — the brother with the amazing voice loathes the brother with the amazing haircut, whom he views as disloyal and undermining — all parties agree to put these tensions aside and put on a good face in front of the guests.
The guest list at this party is truly a mixed bag. There is a wise old man from Mississippi. There is a beautiful blonde poet from the Hollywood hills. There is a jive-talking hipster from New Orleans. There is a coked-up Canadian hippie. There is a portly, purple-suited Irishman who mistakenly believes that he knows karate. And then there’s the Jewish rock star for Minnesota who can’t decide if he really wants to be there.
Thus far, it sounds like I’m describing a Wes Anderson film. And, in some ways, I am — beneath the formalism of the filmmaking is a whole lot of messiness.
On the surface, the party is lavish — there are chandeliers on loan from Gone with the Wind (really!) and the lighting is bold and theatrical and there are famous writers reciting indecipherable passages from Chaucer. Beyond the pomp and circumstance, however, it’s like the bowery. Nearly everyone is sneaking away to get smashed on booze and smuggled chemicals — this is out of habit, but also because family reunions tend to be fraught with tension. It is the most certain of all inalienable truths. The trio of sweet, soft-spoken brothers know that the brother with the amazing haircut will be overbearing and arrogant, and that the brother with the amazing voice will make his stirring but problematic case sympathizing with Southerners who lost the Civil War. And the sweet, soft-spoken ones will once again be caught hopelessly in the middle. You feel for them. Weird politics and flawed family dynamics – who can’t relate to dreading these things at this time of the year?
And yet — in spite of the resentments, and the betrayals, and the intensifying intoxication — everyone is able to come together and conjure a feeling of community. When they gather around to tell old family stories that have been told and re-told umpteen times — like the one about Jack Ruby, or the one about shoplifting bologna and cigarettes — the brothers pretend to laugh whenever the overbearing brother takes over the conversation. (The upside of being on stage is that you can turn off his microphone.) After a while, the laughs seem less forced. They’re faking it so well that they start to feel actual community and love and understanding. This is what The Last Waltz, and Thanksgiving, is all about.