Bluesman Muddy Waters
guested with The Band for the concert.
Beginning with a title card saying "This film should be played loud!" the concert documentary covers The Band's influences and career. The group—Rick Danko on bass, violin and vocals; Levon Helm on drums, mandolin and vocals; Garth Hudson on keyboards and saxophone; songwriter Richard Manuel on keyboards, percussion and vocals; and guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson—started out in the late 1950s as a rock and roll band led by Ronnie Hawkins (Levon Helm was already a member of Ronnie Hawkins' band when Robbie Robertson came on board, and Hawkins himself appears as the first guest. The group backed Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and Dylan performs with The Band toward the end of the concert).
Various other artists perform with The Band: Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. Genres covered include blues, rock and roll, New Orleans R&B, Tin Pan Alley pop, folk and rock. Further genres are explored in segments filmed later on a sound stage with Emmylou Harris (country) and the Staple Singers (soul and gospel.
The film begins with The Band performing the last song of the evening, their cover version of the Marvin Gaye hit "Don't Do It", as an encore. The film then flashes back to the beginning of the concert, and follows it more or less chronologically. The Band is backed by a large horn section and performs many of its hit songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek", "Stage Fright", and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
The live songs are interspersed with studio segments and interviews conducted by director Martin Scorsese in which The Band's members reminisce about the group's history. Robertson talks about Hudson joining the band on the condition that the other members pay him $10 a week each for music lessons. The classically trained Hudson could then tell his parents that he was a music teacher instead of merely a rock and roll musician. Robertson also describes the surreal experience of playing in a burnt-out nightclub owned by Jack Ruby.
Manuel recalls that some of the early names for The Band included "the Honkies", and "the Crackers". Because they were simply referred to as "the band" by Dylan and their friends and neighbors in Woodstock, New York, they figured that was just what they would call themselves.
Danko is seen giving Scorsese a tour of The Band's Shangri-La studio, and he plays a recording of "Sip the Wine," a track from his then-forthcoming 1977 solo album Rick Danko.
A recurring theme brought up in the interviews with Robertson is that the concert marks an end of an era for The Band, that after 16 years on the road, it is time for a change. "That's what The Last Waltz is: sixteen years on the road. The numbers start to scare you," Robertson tells Scorsese. "I mean, I couldn't live with twenty years on the road. I don't think I could even discuss it."