By Liam Lacey
An engaging first-person account of one of the most mythologized groups in rock music history, Canadian director Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band should be catnip for Baby Boomers, and anyone else who cares about how we got to the musical here from the musical there.
The film is directly based on Robbie Robertson’s 2016 memoir Testimony, a book that was largely a love letter to The Band, from its beginnings to its official dissolution in 1976, an era-defining concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with more than a dozen special guests, including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The event was staged and documented by Martin Scorsese for his 1978 film, The Last Waltz.
While hailed as a celebration, The Last Waltz was a glamorous betrayal. In an acrimonious 1993 memoir, The Wheel’s On Fire, The Band’s late drummer Levon Helm accused Robertson of taking the songwriting royalties and running, leaving his “brothers” in the lurch. Once Were Brothers is strictly Robbie’s version, bolstered by a number of witnesses. Garth Hudson, the only other surviving member of the group, is interviewed only in an off-camera archival voice-over clip.
The film begins with the now 76-year-old guitarist and songwriter in his office, showing off a favourite guitar, as he begins to reminisce, in well-shaped sentences and paragraphs. It will be no surprise to anyone familiar with such songs as “The Weight” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that Robertson is a compelling storyteller. He tells the story of a young man who grew up in Toronto but spent summers at his mother’s family’s home on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, where he first learned the guitar and became fascinated with the power and “danger” of traditional storytelling.
Rock and roll arrived when Robinson was in his early teens and he saw the light. At 15, he penned his first two songs for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins before joining his band a year later. The story is illustrated with archival footage and some wonderful old photographs.
The five musicians who became The Band — Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm — were brought by Hawkins in the late 1950s and early sixties. In 1964, they went out on their own, emerging in the limelight in 1965-1966 when they were hired to back Bob Dylan, and endure the choruses of boos on his historic 1965-1966 world tour.
Subsequently, they holed up in a pink ranch house near Woodstock, New York to write — though Robertson and his new wife, Dominique, lived separately. During this period, they created the eclectic genre of traditional music now known as Americana, historically rooted sounds of New Orleans, Delta Blues, country, spirituals and ballads. The effect of those first two albums — Music From The Big Pink, and The Band — had a seismic impact in shifting music from pop and psychedelia to more timeless themes.
Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan and Martin Scorsese — even the late George Harrison in an archival clip — are among those who testify to The Band’s cultural impact. Springsteen notes that, in Danko, Manuel and Helm, The Band had “three of the greatest white singers in rock history. To have any one of those guys would be the foundation of a great group. To have three was just loaded for bear.”
Clapton was so enamoured with The Band’s sound he headed to Woodstock and ask if he could join them. They demurred and, he says, even declined to jam. They didn’t jam, they explained, they wrote songs so he ended up befriending, and spending a lot of drinking time, with the late Richard Manuel.
Stories of the less glamorous side of rock life and the dissolution into drugs and alcoholism are related by the less famous people here, including tour manager Jonathan Taplin, record producer John Simon, photographer Elliot Landy and Robertson’s former wife, Dominque Robertson. They talk about the toll of addiction on the band. (Robertson said he didn’t want to go on the road with “a suitcase full of heroin” recalls Simon). There were also outside pressures. We hear from impresario David Geffen, who courted Robertson, including convincing him to move to Malibu, in the hopes of signing Dylan to his fledgling Asylum Records.
While the anti-Robertson faction are unlikely to be persuaded by Robertson’s account, it’s a harsh fact of rock music that songwriters get rich and musicians seldom do. Robertson sounds resigned rather than offended by Helm’s bitterness toward him. (“Some years later, Levon was having a tough time and out of that, his anger was aimed at me.”). But he also seems sincerely full of affection for his friends of 40 years ago, which is the essential takeaway from film.
When Helm was unconscious on his deathbed, Robertson describes how, after a long estrangement, he came to see him. “I thought about the amazing times we had together. We had been on the front lines of two or three musical revolutions and, now, we are just left with these memories. And I sat with my brother and I held his hand.”
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band. Directed by Daniel Roher. With Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Taplin, Elliott Landy, David Geffen, Dominique Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal and Ronnie Hawkins. Opens September 20 in Toronto (Cineplex Cinemas Yonge Dundas) and Vancouver (Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas); September 27 in Montreal (Cineplex The Forum); and across Caada throughout the fall.