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The Best Rock Concert Movie -- and What Makes It Better on Blu-Ray

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Ever since 2006, when the arrival of Blu-ray supplanted standard DVDs as the gold standard for home viewing I've been pondering: should I buy or rent?

Of course, that was the same question we all confronted a decade earlier with DVDs, which not only played better but were more durable -- and portable -- than VHS tapes.

My answer back then was to buy, but to be very choosy... just the timeless, acclaimed titles I'd want my kids to see and that friends would want to borrow. Other movies I could simply rent.

Did I make a mistake? Because now, those like myself who have built up extensive DVD libraries are shelling out $20 on average for some of the same titles on Blu-ray.

Part of this is the inevitable "planned obsolescence" we've witnessed in tapes/cds, computers, and more.

Recognizing this, I often grit my teeth and make the upgrade, but I do it even more selectively than before.

Only my absolute favorite classics make the cut to Blu-ray, along with films that are particularly scenic or graphic, with a strong use of imagery and color.

And then of course there are great movies with music.

One musical film in particular has made me understand what Blu-ray brings to the home movie experience, particularly when you have a large flat screen and quality surround speakers at hand.

It's my (and many others') pick for the best rock concert movie ever: Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978).

For those in the dark, this was Scorsese's filming of The Band's farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976.

Members of The Band -- Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson -- had been touring a grueling sixteen years by that point, collaborating first with Ronnie Hawkins, and later playing back-up for Bob Dylan.

They had finally decided to pack it in, and viewed the event as a fitting send-off. Here, in top form, they play their biggest hits, including the immortal "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." But it hardly ends there.

Over the course of the concert, the group is joined by a procession of music greats, including the aforementioned Hawkins and Dylan, as well as Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Emmylou Harris, and The Staple Singers.

Actual performance footage is deftly intercut with bandmate interviews backstage, featuring some juicy reminiscences of early touring days.

Over repeat viewings the excellence in both shooting and editing becomes increasingly evident. No big surprise, with Marty S. at the helm, and seasoned pros like Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs manning the cameras.

Though I just recently discovered that Waltz was an early Blu-ray release from back in '06, I only bought my own copy about a year ago since I already had the DVD.

I have a cousin from Boston who often comes down to stay and always requests an after-dinner screening, usually fueled by copious quantities of red wine.

Roughly two visits ago, we put on Waltz, and were blown away. We not only watched the whole thing, transfixed -- we went through it again and re-watched the highlights. What hit us?

Of course, the music itself is incredible, but this time around it sounded better -- somehow richer -- than ever before. (We heeded Scorsese's opening direction to his audience: "This movie should be played loud!")

But it was more than that. Through the power of Blu-ray, the concert literally looked like it'd been shot last week. How could this be over 36 years ago, when we were all in high-school?

Everyone looks so young -- Joni, Dylan, Van, Neil, folks whose voices and faces have since weathered the inevitable effects of time.

And watching this historic performance, we also recognized that this particular moment in rock presaged a fundamental change in popular music. (Disco was already becoming all the rage.)

Finally, three of the five "Band" members -- Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and most recently, the great Levon Helm -- are no longer with us, a void that imbues "Waltz" with a melancholy air.

All these reactions and realizations only make the experience that much more riveting and powerful.

Now an actual Waltz phenomenon has begun in our house. Whenever we have a dinner party, there's usually a contingent that joins me downstairs afterwards, ostensibly just to catch a segment or two of Waltz... maybe Joni singing "Coyote" or Clapton jamming on "Further On Up The Road."

The funny part is we never end up watching just one or two tracks. We get hooked, and there's no turning us away from the screen. I've watched part or all of Waltz at least eight times over the past few months, and guess what -- I never tire of it.

Admittedly, I usually fast-forward over the Neil Diamond segment, and the spoken segments by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure seem to come out of nowhere and are eminently skippable.

Levon Helm also criticized the film's emphasis on the then telegenic, well-spoken Robbie Robertson, over the band's other members. That's fair enough.

Still, that leaves plenty to love and admire in The Last Waltz. Rock fans: if there's one title that benefits from Blu-ray and merits a purchase, this is it.

Here's your chance to start a Last Waltz happening in your own home. Don't forget to crank up the volume!

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