The Most Interesting Person in the Room

Last night, I watched The Last Waltz, a documentary about The Band’s last live concert (Thanksgiving Day 1976). An interesting movie in general. Would recommend it without hesitation. But one aspect seemed particularly fascinating- the contrast between guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm.

Martin Scorsese directed the documentary, and interviewed the band members himself. And what becomes apparent is that, 40 years ago, Scorsese hadn’t figured out a much elided truth. The quiet person, the one who says little and prefers to stay in the background, is sometimes the most interesting person in the room.

Scorsese clearly idolizes Robertson. The documentary focuses mainly on the guitarist, leaving a viewer with the distinct impression that he was the leader and driving force behind the group. The other four members fade into the background (some more, some less). Robertson is all flashy swagger, telling somewhat stereotypical rock n’ roll stories via easily digestible soundbites. Nothing wrong with that. Exactly what one might expect. But it is Helm who draws the viewer with his quiet way.

Helm doesn’t tell stories. He conveys thoughts. Quietly, low-keyed, without particularly good timing or clear phrasing. He doesn’t try to make an impression. He seeks rather to express a sense of his own musings. The few times that Helm appears on-screen (other than in the concert footage), his comments leave me wanting many, many more of them. I almost feel like hollering at Scorsese, let Helm speak! Sit back, be quiet, and let the cameras roll as Helm takes his quiet time in expressing… whatever. Whatever it is, I want to hear it. But no, Scorsese cuts right back to Robertson.

Forty years later now, I wonder if Scorsese has learned the lesson. Probably not. In Hollywood—all superficial, flashy, speak fast with glib confidence—he probably hasn’t perceived the value of the other. And he probably doesn’t perceive the great opportunity he dismissed in focusing on the surface rather than the interior.


*An excellent little exchange between Scorsese and Helm occurs at about the 1 hour, 8 minute mark in the documentary (as timed by Amazon Prime).


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