Why Martin Scorsese Tells Us To Just Go Home

With The Irishman going on everyone’s Netflix “Watch Later” list (does anyone have three and a half hours of free time right now?), it is perhaps more timely, meaningful, and practical during this busy end of the semester––and the long break that looms beyond it––to turn to another Martin Scorsese film (with a much more reasonable running time of under two hours!): The Last Waltz.

The 1978 “rockumentary” chronicles the final concert performed by The Band––yes, that’s the group’s name––on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The concert earned notoriety when it was discovered that The Band would be bringing out some “friends” to help with some of the songs. But these were more than just friends. They were Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, to name a few––some of music’s greatest influences for a whole generation.

At first glance, The Band’s choice to perform on Thanksgiving makes sense. The immense gratitude they had for these other musical legends who had helped them along their career invites us into gratitude of our own: for these musicians and for all the beauty they provide for us.

As we look closer, The Last Waltz provides an insight into Thanksgiving that is too often overlooked today.

The Last Waltz is about life on the road. Famously, the movie opens with one of The Band members, Rick Danko, playing a billiards game called “Cutthroat.” The object? “To keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off.” Life on the road –– performing in one city one day, another city the next –– is a cutthroat lifestyle. It is self-serving, ruthless, and, to be perfectly frank, an impossible way of life.

The Band, at the time of their “last waltz,” had spent 16 years on the road. As each band member is interviewed, providing countless anecdotes and lessons from their years on their way to fame, audiences are given a glimpse into the dive bars, dance halls, and roofless clubs that the band started off in. In year 16, they decided to call it quits (take notes, Star Wars). They packed up their stuff, drew together a bunch of famous musicians for one last fantastic spectacle, and went home––on Thanksgiving.

Just as The Last Waltz is about life on the road, so, it seems, is Thanksgiving. But where the road of Scorsese’s rockumentary seemed to go on forever, Thanksgiving is about a road that has a destination: home. Each year, despite the fact that the holiday falls right before finals and is really just a big meal on a singular day, nearly every person seems to make the effort to go home to his or her family, or at least to a home. Why?

The Last Waltz helps teach us. We do it because constantly moving from place to place without family or a permanent residence is hard. We are relational beings; we desire thesecurity of hearth and home.

What do we do, though, about the fact that after The Band walked off the stage for the “final” time, they actually started touring again about six years later (without Robbie Robertson, the brain behind leaving the road in the first place)? Or about the two members of The Band who died of overdose-related symptoms after touring again? These facts, difficult and tragic as they may be, are revealing of homecoming as well. 

Life on the road is hard, but so is coming home. Old habits die hard. It is not easy to return home to a lifestyle that we thought we had left behind. Sometimes it seems easier to give up when we see how hard it can be at home and how easy it can be at school.

Yet the essence of The Last Waltz can be more than just a reflection on the appeal and difficulty of coming home for holidays. The full story of this group invites us to consider that life can be enjoyed both at home and on the road. Robbie Robertson, despite being largely hated for forcing everyone else in The Band to stop touring, demonstrates this. He enjoyed performing on the road for 16 years, seeing the world and making music, but, at the end of it all, he wanted to settle down. He found great success by focusing on his own music, and, through The Last Waltz, he formed a lasting relationship with Martin Scorsese (author’s note: if you do get around to watching The Irishman, you’ll notice that the music was done by Robertson). He didn’t need the glamorous road life to be happy. In fact, he needed to leave it behind.

No matter how much we might dread it, we need home. And, no matter how difficult it might be, we have to figure out a way to be happy in both places. Robbie Robertson figured it out. We can too.   

John Burke is a sophomore from St. Louis, MO, studying PLS and Economics. He only listens to music from 1978. Send him recommendations (1978 only, please) at jburke23@nd.edu.