A white title against a black background reads, THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD! Some on-the-set talk between director and crew plays behind the United Artists logo, privileging the filmmaker over his subject (unlike the stadium noise at the start of Rattle and Hum, which does the opposite).
The first shot of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film of the Band’s final concert at San Francisco’s famed Winterland Ballroom, is a close-up of some billiard balls racked and ready for play. Scorsese asks off-screen, “Okay, Rick, what’s the game?” We’ll see him on and off throughout the film; he looks roughly like he did in Taxi Driver, which was shot around the same time. Including himself in the film personalizes the narrative and invites us to think of this as a Scorsese movie, not primarily a concert film about the Band.
Bassist and vocalist Rick Danko replies, “Cutthroat,” and Scorsese asks him to explain. “The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off,” Danko says. He fires away with his stick, and there’s a tight shot of the cue ball making loud impact before the camera zooms out to show the other balls scatter. Numerous split-second shots follow Danko circling the table. With Scorsese you can always snap your fingers to the edits.
Danko keeps making shots as applause from the Winterland concert fades in; it’s a similar tactic as the one used by the Maysles in the opening of Gimme Shelter, where visuals from one source and audio from another interact in unexpected ways. In the Scorsese film, the applause works as a transition from the sequence of Danko playing pool to the first shot of the Band in concert.
As guitarist Robbie Robertson takes the stage, Scorsese positions his camera behind a keyboard and the top of an amp. The camera aligns us with the group, as opposed to the U2 film, which presents the band from the audience’s perspective. Interesting, too, that Rattle and Hum includes none of the warm-up that Scorsese focuses on at the start: Robertson bopping around with a cigarette and a half-empty beer, drummer Levon Helm stretching his legs, a roadie casually checking cords and equipment and fwapping a drumstick against his thigh. The U2 film dives right in with the band already in performance mode.
Smooth, skinny Robertson tells the audience, “You’re still there, huh?”
Scorsese’s goosing us by starting his film at the end of the concert. It sends a number of early signals: this isn’t going to be a flat, literal, linear document of a live performance. The structure of the film will not necessarily mirror the structure of the concert. The choice establishes a valedictory tone, which makes sense in light of what the film’s about: a beloved and long-running group’s final show. It’s also interesting to see the musicians after they’ve already drained themselves for two hours. They’re no longer fresh and busting out of the gates.
“We’re gonna do one more song and that’s it,” Robertson says, stubbing out his cigarette as the others take up their instruments. The guys are smoking and holding drinks; everyone looks buzzed and content. Danko wishes the audience a happy Thanksgiving, and there’s a small hiccup in the editing as Scorsese cuts to one of only a few shots of the whole group together. For most of this first song he prefers close-ups.
The encore’s a funky slab of hard-smacking R&B. Scorsese gives each of the Band’s five members plenty of solo time on-screen; even their faces are interesting, he seems to be saying. Robertson is cheerful and non-pretentious, maybe even frail if you chose to think of him that way; Danko’s a handsome surfer type with hang-dog eyes and long brown hair; piano player Richard Manuel has a crow’s beak and a wide, lop-sided grin that ripples kinetically through his thick black beard; behind the drums, Levon Helm personifies his name: grizzly but well-groomed, a burly chunk of man-meat banging on the skins; and organist Garth Hudson (who appears so infrequently in the film you might forget he’s there) has a massive head and high hair-line, someone you might expect to find poring over old law books in a library on a rainy Sunday afternoon. He also wins the beard competition, just edging out Helm and Manuel.
Scorsese shoots Robertson’s solo from behind the guitarist’s back. We’re meant to notice his stance more than his actual technique. His knobby elbows are bent as he exerts downward force on his guitar, like he’s trying to keep it submerged.
The song comes to a quick end, and Robertson fumbles the last chord. Scorsese’s gone back to shooting from the audience. The guys seem in a hurry to get off the stage. Watching in 1996, we think, “Why aren’t they more into it?” Danko blows a kiss, and soon only Hudson and Robertson remain. Robertson signs off like a newscaster: “Thank you. Good night. Goodbye,” then picks up his beer and tips his fedora to the crowd. An orchestral crescendo takes us into the next scene.
The first thing worth noting about Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged in New York is the title. We’ve seen other episodes of MTV Unplugged before—Eric Clapton’s been on the show, and Paul McCartney—so we know what to expect: a live in-the-round performance in front of a studio audience of five-hundred or so. The show has its established look. Unlike Martin Scorsese, the directors of MTV Unplugged have no particular mission, no defined point-of-view. Their function is to provide a non-intrusive showcase for the evening’s entertainment.
The logo for the series states the brand name up front: MTV Unplugged in a homey sans-serif splayed across an acoustic guitar. There’s the quiet sound of papers shuffling over a live microphone. The opening feels very much like a directed event, a “Wait! And… go” type of thing.
Singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain says, “This is off our first record. Most people don’t own it.” It’s not clear what he means by “most people.” Most people in the world? The comment suggests a certain lack of perspective. “Own” is an interesting choice too. A record is usually something you “have” or “know.”
The band plays a moody little dirge called “About a Girl.” Every cut is a dissolve, and the cameras are in continuous motion. The cuts obey the rhythm of the music, as if they’ve been programmed in advance. It’s the aesthetic equivalent to security camera coverage of a parking garage. The result gives each shot equal or near equal value, unlike Scorsese’s nervy arrhythmia. The dissolves are likewise weak and indecisive; it’s unobtrusive filmmaking, wholly subservient to the needs of the client (in this case, MTV). Of course the director’s just doing her job, but the effect is screen-saver dull.
Along with the constant dissolves and roaming handhelds, we get a number of medium shots pointing directly up at Cobain as he left-hand-strums his acoustic guitar. Generally this makes a person look taller and more imposing, but here it renders Cobain more aloof than he already is. The director also favors shooting through the potted lilies that guard the front of the set. The flowers feminize the band, along with the gently acoustic reimaginings of Nirvana’s power-trio hits. A female cellist augments the core line-up, and a neutered Dave Grohl awkwardly slaps his brushes at his drum kit. Watching in 2003, we think, “Why aren’t there more bonus features on the DVD?”
What’s absent is not only an aesthetic point-of-view but a narrative purpose, unless you allow for some after-the-fact poignancy in light of Cobain’s suicide five months later (I don’t). Our appreciation is entirely dependent on our feelings about the band, which can’t be said of Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz, or Rattle and Hum. Maybe the difference between an average concert film and one of the great ones comes down to this extra-musical objective.