Edinburgh International Film Festival Diary: 17 August

Alistair Harkness looks forward to a 4K restoration of Martin Scorsese’s classic rock documentary The Last Waltz

One of best things I’ve ever seen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival was a restored version of the Rolling Stones’ Altamont film Gimme Shelter. For me, it remains the high-water mark of that first wave of rock documentaries that captured the chaos, craziness and excitement of the times in all their cinema verité glory. Though that film caught the end of the 1960s – literally and figuratively – the end of that era as whole was really captured in another San Francisco-set film, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, a 4K restoration of which is screening at the Festival today. First released in 1978, The Last Waltz was Scorsese’s shimmering ode to the Band, the legendary rock group led by Robbie Robertson whose 1976 farewell concert the film captures, replete with a legendary roster of guests, among them Bob Dylan (for whom the Band had once been backing musicians), Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton, then in his puffy, alcoholic phase and appearing just a few months after his infamous racist diatribe that would go on to inspire the punk-fuelled Rock Against Racism movement.

Scorsese’s film, though, remains a stunning time capsule of that pre-punk era: the ornate staging of the San Francisco show, the neighbourhoods surrounding the venue, the faces in the crowd, the dude-heavy make-up of the music industry (it’s a bit of a relief when Joni Mitchel comes on stage). Interspersing performance footage with illuminating interviews between Scorsese and Robertson (who looks like he’s stepped out of a Scorsese movie), it also revolutionised the form, setting the template for the, if you will, rockumentary that would be so mercilessly spoofed a few years later in This is Spinal Tap, and which would later devolve into the sort of hagiographic, tightly controlled, rock star ego massages that would fill the schedules of MTV and to which Scorsese himself would fall prey with his terrible Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light.

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The Last Waltz captures the end of an era in more ways than one, then, but what an era, and what a film.

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in The Last Waltz
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The Last Waltz screens on 17 August. For more information and tickets, see www.edfilmfest.org.uk