‘The Last Waltz’: Why Joni Mitchell Sang the ‘Helpless’ Backing Vocals Hidden Backstage
Looking back at the documentaries on the classic rock era, music fans have to feel lucky. After D.A. Pennebaker’s superb job filming Monterey Pop in ’67, a crew that included Martin Scorsese matched that job with Woodstock. Then in the following decade, Scorsese came through with The Last Waltz.
Scorsese’s 1978 film documented the final performance of The Band, and it was a doozy. Over the course of the evening (Thanksgiving Day 1976), everyone from Muddy Waters to Bob Dylan and Dr. John played their songs with The Band backing them.
The lineup delivered one stunning moment after another, and an early highlight came in the performance of Neil Young doing “Helpless.” Young, who’d flown cross-country to appear that night, seemed to give everything he had.
Young had some help. On top of the swirling organ part behind him, Joni Mitchell sang backing vocals on “Helpless.” You first see her 1:15 into the song and, strangely enough, Mitchell is singing while hidden backstage.
Joni Mitchell hadn’t appeared on stage before singing behind Neil Young in ‘The Last Waltz’
The Last Waltz works so well because every performer who comes out feels like a surprise to the audience. That wasn’t exactly movie-making magic. On top of Young’s long journey to the Winterland Ballroom stage, no one could say whether Dylan would perform on camera until it actually happened.
As for Mitchell singing behind Young on “Helpless,” that idea occurred to everyone during a rehearsal for the show. “When Neil Young sang ‘Helpless,’ Joni did a high background vocal that sent shivers through the hall,” Robbie Robertson recalled (via Music Aficionado).
“In the show, Joni wasn’t going to perform until after Neil, and I did not want to give away her appearance before that,” Robertson continued. “I asked [Scorsese] if we could film Joni from behind the curtain while she sang her part on ‘Helpless.'” Scorsese said he would.
Robertson enjoyed seeing the effect on the crowd at Winterland that night. “When Joni Mitchell’s high falsetto came soaring in from the heavens, I looked up and I saw people in the audience looking up too, wondering where it was coming from,” Robertson said.
The Band had trouble with Joni Mitchell’s challenging music for ‘Coyote’
Speaking of Last Waltz highlights, Mitchell’s performance of “Coyote” has to rank near the top. Robertson spoke of her radiance that night (“She seemed to glow in the dark”), and she delivers a beautiful vocal performance on film. However, The Band didn’t have an easy time with “Coyote.”
Mitchell frequently used alternate guitar tunings in her songs, and she did just that when she composed “Coyote.” On top of that, she plays syncopated guitar that clearly tripped up The Band at the beginning of her performance.
“Joni’s songs might have been the most challenging of the night,” Robertson recalled, via Music Aficionado. “Her syncopation and chord structures kept you on your toes.” In other words, you can bet “Coyote” needed cleaning up in the recording sessions following the live takes for The Last Waltz.