DIRECTED BY: DANIEL ROHER/2020
The Band are already regarded as one of rock music’s most iconic bands. Known to have been the backing band for Bob Dylan, their swan song was beautifully filmed in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which included many guest artists like Neil Young, and Eric Clapton. Now, The Band’s chief songwriter, Robbie Robertson, pulls back the curtain and allows director Daniel Roher to document the humble beginnings of Robertson, and how that ultimately led to one of the most creative musical outlets ever assembled in the documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.
Robertson was a young kid from Toronto, Ontario, Canada whose mother was a part of the Six Nations Reserve, and his unknown father was part of the “Hebrew Mafia”. This is truly a unique combination, but it was very influential on Robertson. It was his time spent at Six Nations where he learned to play guitar, and he was then caught up in the 1950’s wave of rock n’ roll. Eventually he started a band and found himself opening for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, a rockabilly group from Arkansas. This led to him joining their road crew, and eventually playing bass for the band. He also co-wrote two songs in 1959 for Ronnie Hawkins.
While this all led Robertson out of Canada into Arkansas, the real impact joining the Hawks had on Robertson was his meeting and becoming friends with the Hawk’s drummer, Levon Helm. By 1961, more turnover led to Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson joining. It was this band that would eventually be called The Band. By 1964, they had left Ronnie’s group and went out as Levon and the Hawks. It was then that they attracted interest from Bob Dylan, who would hire them to be his touring band.
Through the use of archival footage, and interviews with Ronnie Hawkins, Dominque Robertson (Robbie’s ex-wife), Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, David Geffen, Jann Wenner, Taj Mahal, Rick Dano, and archival footage of George Harrison, Levon Helm, Chuck Berry, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson, Once Were Brothers draws the viewer into the a deeper story of friendship and brotherhood that transcends even the music they made together. Despite the way that things ended and the fact that The Band never stepped on stage again following the concert filmed by Scorsese for The Last Waltz, Once Were Brothers becomes a loving coda to their story.
While the film is mostly sympathetic to Robbie Robertson, it seeks to provide a nuanced picture of the troubles that eventually plagued this band. From the Bob Dylan tour in 1965-66 which saw them getting booed from the first note to the last due to fans who were infuriated that folk hero Dylan had dared to plug in his guitar and play rock n’ roll. Eventually Helm left to go work on an oil rig in the gulf of Mexico, but it proved to be only a temporary setback.
The true glimpse of creativity comes from the next period in The Band’s journey as they follow Dylan to upstate New York in Woodstock. There they lived in the “Big Pink” house, playing daily in the basement. Dylan would come over and this eventually led to the infamous “basement tapes”. Robertson finally gets a hold of Levon Helm and brings him back into the fold, leading to a recording that would serve as their first album “Music from the Big Pink“. The footage of The Band creating with Bob Dylan was very insightful, and the footage of them hanging out together only reinforced the depth that I experience listening to their music.
As with any other rock doc, Once Were Brothers chronicles the struggle these individuals begin to have with success. Alcoholism, substance abuse, car accidents, and the like begin to derail the tight camaraderie that had previously existed. It is clear from the film that Robertson wishes things would have ended better. The thing that shines through the most of course, is the music itself. The Last Waltz was an attempt to rise above all of the other distractions and simply celebrate what made them such a powerful force together. Songs like “Up on Cripple Creek“, “The Shape I’m In“, “Ophelia“, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“, and “The Weight” will stand the test of time.
The film does deal with the later criticisms that came from Levon Helm about The Last Waltz in particular, as well as his disputes with Robertson over songwriting credits. In doing so, though, it largely dismisses Helm’s gripes, sweeping them under the rug as a product of Helm’s drug use. Given that Helm, Danko, and Manuel are all dead, and Hudson sold any rights he had to The Band to Robbie Robertson, this is clearly Robertson’s take on the group. Having more of Garth Hudson’s input would have made this a more complete documentary as it relates to the story of The Band.
Ultimately, this documentary, is about Robertson, so it is his voice that will prevail. His song “Once Were Brothers” serves as the title of this film as it was a song written by Robertson as he reminisced about his former bandmates, and the myriad of experiences they shared together for over 16 years. It is clear that Robertson, who went on to great success as a solo artist and as a collaborator with Scorsese even up to this last year’s The Irishman, still cherishes his time with The Band.
For all of the water that has passed under the proverbial bridge, Once Were Brothers serves as an appropriate coda that further cements the legacy of The Band as one of rock music’s greatest artists. The music is timeless, the backstory of how they came together is vital to understanding how a band like The Band came to be, and how they initially orchestrated an entity that sought for the whole to be great than each individual part. Once Were Brothers shows The Band, warts and all, including its undoing when the focus shifted from the whole, to the individual members. In the end, what truly matters is the very thing that will be remembered: the music.