After 16 years as a touring group, The Band decided to retire from touring and live performance. The Band—bass player/singer Rick Danko, drummer/singer Levon Helm, keyboardist/saxophone player Garth Hudson, pianist/singer Richard Manuel, and guitarist Robbie Robertson—elected to play a final farewell concert on Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. This idea then grew to be a bigger show in which The Band would invite as their Special Guests other performers whom they regarded as influences, had worked with in the past, or just held in high esteem. They assembled one hell of an All-Star Cast to appear onstage: Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan (of course), Neil Diamond—yup, Neil Diamond—and others, each of whom performed songs of their own with The Band accompanying them.
The idea then further grew into capturing the show into a concert film to be directed by none other than Robertson's friend Martin Scorsese, then one of the hottest young directors in Hollywood. While most concert films prior to 1976 had been no-frills filmed performances on 16mm, Scorsese elected to stage the film as a full-on Hollywood production, shooting in 35mm with seven cameras, with specially designed lighting for specific songs, storyboarding, and set design. Scorsese also had The Band perform two songs on a film soundstage: their Signature Song "The Weight" (along with The Staple Singers), and new song "Evangeline" (with Emmylou Harris). He also included in the movie interview segments in which he talked about the members of The Band about their history and the decision to quit touring.
The result is still regarded as one of the best concert films ever made. It has, however, attracted criticism. Levon Helm, who until his death in 2012 carried on a bitter feud with Robertson about songwriting credits and royalties, stated that it was Robertson himself who unilaterally decided to quit touring. Helm charged that the film was Robertson's attempt to paint himself as the Face of the Band and launch himself into a film career. (If so this was ironic, as this film launched Levon Helm to the more successful acting career, including as narrator of The Right Stuff and a starring role in Coal Miner's Daughter.) Helm also claimed that Robertson, who rarely sang despite writing most of The Band's material due to his poor voice, was singing into a dead microphone on stage.
Random trivia: note Neil Young's wild-eyed, goofy smile when he comes back on stage for the finale. Young had been snorting quite a bit of cocaine backstage, and came out with a distinctly visible coke-encrusted booger under his nose. The coke booger was removed in post-production.
"The Tropes were our school. They gave us a sense of survival.":
- Bleached Underpants: Rick Danko gives Martin Scorsese a tour of their Shangri-La recording studio in Malibu and talks about how it used to be a bordello.
- The Cameo: They didn't play in the show, but Ringo Starr and Ron Wood appear at the end for the group performance of "I Shall Be Released".
- Chekhov's Gunman: A woman in silhouette can be seen backstage providing backup vocals for Neil Young's performance of "Helpless". It's Joni Mitchell, who elected to stay backstage so as not to take away from her own performance later.
- Concert Film: Say what you will about the interview segments with Robertson and all the other controversies, it's a fantastic concert film. The soundtrack was released as a triple album to accompany the film in 1978, and as a Limited Special Collector's Ultimate Edition 4-CD box set in 2002 with additional material.
- Creator Cameo: Martin Scorsese during the interview segments.
- Creepy Circus Music: The eponymous instrumental theme is a calliope-accompanied funhouse tune in, yep, waltz time. Instead of creepy, though, the effect is wistful and elegiac. And mighty damned pretty!
- A Dog Named "Dog": A band called The Band. They talk about the name in an interview segment.
- Grand Finale: The whole film and concert were supposed to be this. Within the film itself, all the musical guests appear together to close out the show with a group performance of "I Shall Be Released".note
- How We Got Here: The first performance is actually the last song from the concert, The Band's cover of "Don't Do It".
- Inadvertent Entrance Cue: Martin Scorsese films are always well-edited.
- An impromptu jam of "That Old-Time Religion" leads Robertson to snark that "it's not like it used to be." The film then cuts directly to the performance of "The Night They Drove Dixie Down", a song about how things aren't like they used to be.
- The discussion of "women on the road" ends when Richard Manuel cracks "I just want to break even." Everyone laughs. Cut to the introduction of Joni Mitchell, the only woman performer in the concert.
- From Robertson's initial observations about "the road" into "Up on Cripple Creek" ("And this livin' off the road is gettin' pretty old.")
- Large Ham
- Robbie Robertson throughout the show. He came out with a guitar he had bronzed.
- Special mention has to be given to Van Morrison, who comes out dressed in a skin-tight purple jumpsuit with spangles, does leg kicks on stage, then drops his mic and walks off the stage before his song is over. And he kicks so much ass doing it.
- Ronnie Hawkins, whose hamminess was his singing trademark, gets his turn too, memorably dropping the names of The Band members into "Who Do You Love?"
- The Last Title: Befitting The Band's last concert. Although it turned out to not be; The Band re-formed in 1983 without Robertson, soldiering on through the suicide of Richard Manuel in 1986 and touring and recording until Rick Danko died in 1999.
- Leave the Camera Running: Almost all of Muddy Waters' performance of "Mannish Boy", all but the last few seconds, is shown as a single unbroken take from a camera at stage right. The reason for this was that Waters had bounded on stage during what was supposed to be a scheduled camera break to change film. The only one who had film ready to shoot was Oscar-winner Laszlo Kovacs at stage right, who hadn't heard the message to change film because he had his headset off.
- Mic Drop: Van Morrison does this, dropping his mic and walking off stage before his song, "Caravan", is even over. And given how thoroughly Morrison tore that stage up while delivering a tremendous performance, he was right to do it.
- Out of Focus: The film's come in for a lot of criticism for centering on Robertson and giving the rest of the guys short shrift, which resulted in a skewed portrait of the group (for example, a New York magazine capsule review from 1978 said the film starred "Band-leader Robertson with his musicians"). Robertson and Scorsese becoming Heterosexual Life-Partners during post-production probably didn't help matters. Still, all the Band members get memorable moments in the interview segments. Even the famously Stoic Garth Hudson has a couple good mini-monologues.
- Production Foreshadowing: In an interview segment Levon Helm talks about the traveling shows that used to tour through small towns in the South and how along with their usual family friendly shows they'd do a more boisterous, provocative "midnight ramble" performance. A couple decades later Helm started hosting his weekly Midnight Ramble jam sessions at his Woodstock barn that were open to the public.
- Rockumentary: Qualifies for this as well as Concert Film thanks to the post-concert interview sequences with director Scorsese conducting Q&A with the members of The Band. This is probably the most controversial part of the movie. While Scorsese did conduct interviews with all five members of The Band, Robertson talks more than the rest of them put together, and comes off as the Face of the Band. Scorsese's clueless interviewer performance was an obvious inspiration for Rob Reiner's "Marti DiBergi" character in Mockumentary This is Spın̈al Tap.
- Scatting: Van Morrison starts doing this during "Caravan", before the horns start. Then he stops, screams "TURN IT UP NOW!!", and the horns go bananas.
- Spiritual Antithesis: Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense is often considered this to the film with its complete lack of interview or backstage footage.
- Train Song: The Band and Paul Butterfield join to perform old blues song "Mystery Train", in which a man laments that a train is taking his loved one away.