After 16 straight years of life on the road with The Band, Robbie Robertson decided it was time for a change. He envisioned The Band becoming a studio-only band, like the Beatles did in 1966. The Band began advertising that their farewell show, dubbed The Last Waltz, would take place on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.
Director Martin Scorsese captured the iconic event on film, releasing it as a documentary/concert film in 1978. It quickly earned a reputation as one of the greatest concert films of all time.
The original idea for the concert was to pay tribute to The Band’s history by bringing in Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan as guest performers. The Band got their start as Ronnie Hawkins backing band in the early 1960s before becoming Bob Dylan’s band during his controversial transition from folk music to electric guitar-based rock. The roster of guest performers expanded to over a dozen, featuring legendary musicians like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Emmylou Harris.
But despite the film’s praise, not every member of The Band was enthused about the final product. Drummer Levon Helm felt that Scorsese and Robertson (who produced the film) had focused the film too much on Robertson, making the rest of the band look like his “side men.” He made a point to mention that during “I Shall Be Released”, lead vocalist Richard Manuel was practically invisible. Helm went on to call the film “the biggest rip-off that ever happened to the Band,” after neither he, Manuel, Rick Danko, or Garth Hudson received any money for sales of home videos, DVDs, or soundtracks.
The Winterland Ballroom, that hosted their debut as a band in 1969, would end up serving as the site of their last performance together as their original lineup. Robertson’s hopes to become a studio band were dashed after putting calls out and booking studio time for their next album, and no one showed up. He knew then that The Band was finished. The Band reunited in 1983, without Robertson, and continued to tour and release albums until 1998. Helm wrote in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire that The Last Waltz was really Robertson’s project, and that he had forced their breakup on the rest of the band.
In his memoir Testimony, Robertson said Levon Helm “was the closest thing I had to a brother. He hit some hard times… he often blamed other people for what was happening, and those other people were all gone and I was still standing.”