The Last Waltz, The Red Shoes, and the Artist’s Sacrifice

by Breanna McCann

The artist’s sacrifice is an incredibly prevalent theme in artistic expressions of every medium. In a dramatically staged confrontation or moment of contemplation, the artist must choose between their life and their art. It is an obsession, one that begins to push out every other facet of the artist’s life, all in pursuit of that glorious artistic triumph, that success that guarantees eternal life through one’s art. But every story that centers around this sacrifice forces one to ask- is it worth it?

Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes is perhaps the most artful examination of this sacrifice, following a dancer who must choose between being a great ballerina and being with the man she loves. In the film, Vicky, the ballerina, rises to stardom and acclaim as the lead in a ballet adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen’s The Red Shoes. The ballet sequence, perhaps the most recognizable and acclaimed part of the film, tells the story of a girl who loves to dance and, upon finding a beautiful pair of red shoes, decides she must have them. When she finally obtains the shoes she so desires, she finds that she cannot take them off or stop their movement, and they quite literally dance her to death.

The Red Shoes is one of the most influential films of all time, perhaps most frequently referenced and revered by director Martin Scorsese. He often cites the film as an influence on his own work, one of the most notable examples being 1978’s The Last Waltz. It is hard to capture what exactly The Last Waltz is, but at its core, it is a concert film and pseudo-documentary depicting The Band’s farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Critics and fans often revere it as the best concert film ever made, and at the very least, it is the most artful ever created thanks to Scorsese’s excellent direction. Scorsese cites the filming of the famed ballet sequence in The Red Shoes and its focus on the dancers as a driving inspiration in his decisions about how to shoot The Last Waltz, most notably in choosing not to leave the stage and show the audience, instead focusing on the musicians.

However, there is a far deeper connection between The Red Shoes and The Last Waltz than Martin Scorsese. Both of the films explore this concept of the artist’s sacrifice. While The Red Shoes is more overt about it, The Last Waltz is just as profound of a statement on the idea of the artist’s sacrifice. At a time when they were still successful and revered, The Band said goodbye. There remains a great deal of discourse about The Last Waltz as an event and the driving factors and motivations behind it by different members of The Band, and that is an important disclaimer to make. However, taking the film of the event and its framing on its face, it becomes a clear testament to this idea of great artists choosing between their art and their life.

Early in The Red Shoes, Vicky and Lermontov, the owner of the ballet, meet at a party and have an exchange that perhaps perfectly encapsulates the mindset of an artist, at least one driven by their work to the point of the artist’s sacrifice:

L: Why do you want to dance?
V: Why do you want to live?
L: Well, I don’t exactly know why but I must.
V: That’s my answer too.

In The Red Shoes, Vicky learns the depths of her own declaration. To her, dancing is life, it is the only worthwhile thing in life, and her life is nothing without it. When talking to composer Julian Craster, the man she will later have to consider leaving behind dancing for, he tells her, “the music is all that matters- nothing but the music.” It is a film full of artists driven by their own ambitions. There are some like Vicky, who is so driven by dancing that she pursues it with a single-minded zeal, and some like Julian, who loves his art but stops short of the obsession that pushes him to the artist’s sacrifice, perhaps sacrificing some greatness in return.

This same range of artists can be seen in The Last Waltz, both literally and metaphorically. As an event, The Last Waltz is particularly unique because The Band brought in a host of guests and played some of the guests' songs with them, devoting time to celebrating other musicians on their last night. In that sense, it is perhaps the truest celebration of music ever captured on film. It is even more beautiful for the way it uniquely reflects The Band’s history as a backing band, rising to fame with Ronnie Hawkins and then with Bob Dylan. All of these guests, in beautifully filmed segments, play their songs along with The Band, or in the case of some numbers filmed as part of “The Last Waltz Suite,” The Band performs some of their best songs with other artists then supporting them. These segments are all incredibly reminiscent of the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes, showing artists so devoted to and caught up in their craft that it almost seems like they are in a trance. On such a special, final night, this is even more so the case, with everyone seeming keenly aware of the moment in which they find themselves. But, just as in The Red Shoes, there is a deeper and darker undercurrent running under this glory.

The beauty of The Red Shoes is how it positions the ballet sequence relatively early in the movie so that the viewer begins to realize that life is truly imitating art; Vicky is becoming the girl she just played in the ballet. It leaves one with a sense of impending doom, wondering if her version of the story will end better. She finally achieves what she wants- to be a great dancer, but she is forced to choose, forced to the point of the artist’s sacrifice. She finally gets the shoes, but then she can never stop. It is a dark footnote to artistic success and one that The Band examined in many of their best songs, several of which feature in The Last Waltz. By the time of their third album, 1970’s Stage Fright, the toll of the sudden success and acclaim brought by their first two albums was becoming apparent, leading to some incredibly prescient musical reflections.

In songs like “Stage Fright,” one of the most visually stunning sequences in the film, Band bassist Rick Danko sings about a ploughboy, much like the young boys they were, given fortune and fame who then becomes trapped by it, unable or unwilling to stop playing no matter how paralyzing that stage fright threatens to become. The boy, “who suffered so much for what he did,” could just as easily be Vicky as Rick. It is almost a direct parallel to the story of the red shoes. “The Shape I’m In” reads as a desperate plea for help, not only for the song’s performer Richard Manuel, who was struggling greatly with his addiction at the time, something that unfortunately rings through clearly in the film, but for The Band as a whole. With this success and glory on full display, the listener cannot possibly know the shape they are in; they cannot understand how much they are suffering in creating art that sounds so incredible and harmonious. Again, for as beautiful and graceful as Vicky looks dancing, no one could know the suffering she was enduring to be there and achieve that success. Vicky and The Band are truly one and the same, but that also means that each is forced to that breaking point of the artist’s sacrifice.

Something that really defines The Last Waltz and makes it more special and lasting than just a concert film is the clips in between the various performances where Scorsese talks to members of The Band in their own space, sitting with them as people not just as iconic musicians. It is in these moments, however, where the artist’s sacrifice begins to creep in and play itself out in the shared life of the group. At one point, Scorsese is talking to Robbie Robertson, the group’s guitarist, about the reasons for The Last Waltz and why the group would choose to call everything off at this point. Robertson sighs, “I mean, 16 years on the road. The numbers start to scare you. I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” In a moment of supreme genius on Scorsese’s part, as the camera lingers on Robertson, who falls silent after this confession and looks down with a profoundly sad but resigned expression, the opening notes of “Stage Fright” begin. Robertson makes the choice, some might argue on behalf of The Band, that the artist’s sacrifice is not worth it. He chooses life over art, at least in the sense of continuing with The Band in this way.

Vicky tries to make this same choice, choosing to go away with Julian but then coming back to again dance the lead in The Red Shoes. She cannot comprehend a life without dancing. In a moment with Rick Danko, Scorsese hits on a similar inability of the artist to envision a life without the art:

S: Let me ask you, now that The Last Waltz is over, what are you doing now?
D: Just making music, you know?
S: Oh, yeah.
D: Trying to stay busy, man.

With this, Rick plays him a bit of a solo song of his, what would go on to become “Sip the Wine,” and just sits there in what is perhaps the most devastating moment of the film, looking completely lost at the thought of life without The Band.

At the end of The Red Shoes, when Vicky is about to go onstage to dance her lead role in the titular ballet again, she realizes she would give up dancing for Julian, running to catch him before he leaves but falling in front of a train. In a moment of supremely poignant irony, as she is dying, she asks Julian to cut off the red shoes she was wearing for the performance, just as her character does at the ballet’s end. The artist’s sacrifice kills Vicky. At one point earlier in the film, Lermontov asks Vicky, “[w]hat do you want from life? To live?” Vicky merely responds, “to dance.” She fulfills this choice.

It is harder to assess the fate of The Band after they encountered the moment of choice with the artist’s sacrifice. They were all artists who would go on to make more music, but it would never again be the same. They stood together in the shoes of Vicky, The Band being their own version of the story of the red shoes. Both films pose the question of whether or not the artist’s sacrifice is worth it. Would their music and lifestyle, their proverbial red shoes, have danced them to death? Even the members of The Band seem to have different views on this, and the history of the group afterward provides some speculative answers, but The Last Waltz as a film stands as a testament to art and artists. It is a celebration of a group of incredible musicians who changed everything in every note they played. However, it is a film that becomes profoundly sadder as one revisits and contemplates it precisely because it centers around this same idea of what one is willing to give up for their art. Scorsese seems to have a real understanding of this, something that becomes clear in the way he frames the film and cites The Red Shoes as an inspiration. Though in very different forms, the two tell the same story, thirty years apart.

Before the sequence of the five members of The Band playing alone in a large soundstage that poignantly and poetically ends the film and their time as a quintet, there is one final discussion with Robertson, one that perhaps perfectly captures the difficulty of a great artist’s experience, and the life and death struggle they find themselves in as they are pushed to that sacrifice:

R: You can press your luck. The road has taken a lot of the great ones. Hank Williams. Buddy Holly. Otis Redding. Janis. Jimi Hendrix. Elvis. It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.
S: It is, isn’t it?
R: No question about it.
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