Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is a loving look at the memories of the founding guitarist and main songwriter of his band. Robertson is a storyteller, in verse or narration, and he has almost purely fond memories of the group, its music and the other guys in it: Drummer Levon Helm, who sang lead on some of their most signature songs, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardist Richard Manuel, whose vocals also led classic songs, and Garth Hudson who created soulful sounds from almost any instrument. The purity is put to the test, but who’s telling the story? The guy who looked inside the acoustic guitar he was fingering and pulled into Nazareth with a heavy load but friends to help him bear “The Weight.”
Early in his career, Robbie told The Band’s record producer John Simon he wanted to work with Ingmar Bergman. But the Swedish director may have aimed too tight a camera on family trauma for the happy story Robertson chooses to remember. Canadian director Daniel Roher doesn’t dwell on the feud with Helm. Based on Robertson’s 2016 autobiography Testimony: A Memoir, the film prefers sweet board mixes over the bitter bootleg tapes of Helm’s 1993 memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. We do learn Robertson was able to say a farewell to Helm on his deathbed in 2012. But the brother who preferred working on an oil rig to getting booed by Bob Dylan’s folk fans was unconsciousness for the reunion.
The Band was on the forefront of three different musical revolutions and there are gaps from the revolutionaries. Helm, Danko and Manuel have all died, and their contributions, as well as the “shy” Hudson, are told with archival footage from happier times, or from people who are thrilled to tell it. Slowhand journeyman Eric Clapton “never had a sense of brotherhood” going from one supergroup to the next and wanted to join The Band. Bruce Springsteen enthuses the group 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.” Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel remember feeling music itself change. Taj Mahal hails the Band as America’s answer to the Beatles.
Helm was the only American-born member of The Band. The rest were from Canada. Robertson’s mother Dolly, who enthusiastically supported the group before it was even formed, was Mohawk. Robbie first fell in love with music, and got his first guitar, as a boy listening to music at Six Nations Reservation in southern Ontario.
Leave it to Martin Scorsese to bring in the gangster connection. The Irishman director, who also filmed The Last Waltz 41 years ago, has had a long collaborative history with Robertson. Scorsese may have co-executive produced Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band with Ron Howard and Brain Grazer, just to remind us Robertson’s birth father was a Jewish mobster named Alexander Klegerman. That side of the family encouraged Robertson’s love of rock and roll just as readily, once they realized “Oh, you mean show business.”
Robertson was 15 years old when he joined southern rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins’ band the Hawks on the promise he’d get “more pussy than Sinatra.” Helm was already flipping his sticks behind the kit. Helm drummed in Bob Dylan’s backing band along with Harvey Brooks and Al Kooper at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York on Aug. 28, 1965, and the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 3. Robbie and the rest of The Band backed Dylan from February to May 1966 for his world tour. The tour where people paid for tickets just to boo Dylan and his electric guitar. Robertson remembers setting up to play and get booed was a strange way to get paid. Helm found it so intolerable he quit the band to work an offshore oil rig in New Orleans to get paid.
The rest of the band moved to New York and explored R&B and the blues before heading up to Woodstock to woodshed and find their own sound. Robertson reconfigured the style with songs like “The Weight” from their 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink. The documentary skips how The Band’s performance was cut from the film Woodstock but was at the center of 1969 counterculture classic Easy Rider to focus on the music. We get live or studio renditions of “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
When the group first performed live as The Band, it was the first time they’d been on stage since backing Dylan and Robertson was still shell shocked. The documentary reveals he did shows with a hypnotist on stage. It also tells how Robertson’s Montreal-born wife Dominique influenced his writing with her vast literary and artistic interests. The film notes she is an addiction therapist now.
Heroin and alcohol abuse, and the occasional multi-car accidents by Danko, Manuel and Helm broke up The Band. Robertson hadn’t intended The Last Waltz to break up the group. He saw it was a vacation and figured the other musicians would clean up and come back together. “Everybody just forgot to come back,” Robertson explains.
The live segments are exciting. The film is touching, bittersweet and told with enough humor to make you grin visibly while watching. That place in Woodstock was just an ugly pink house with a studio in the basement. When Robertson talks about moving with his wife and children, who he endearingly buries himself in when down, to Malibu, he remembers asking himself “what the fuck” he was doing in Woodstock. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is downright house proud, remembering it as a home.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Feb. 21 or nationwide on Feb. 28, 2020.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.