ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON & THE BAND (Daniel Roher, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
The opening night selection of the tenth annual DOC NYC festival, Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & the Band is an intimate, if completely one-sided, look inside one of the greatest, most influential music groups in North American history. The film was inspired by Band cofounder Robbie Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, offering his take on the Band’s ups and downs, famous battles, and ultimate breakup. “I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band, and it was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames,” Robertson, sitting in a chair in a vast, empty room, guitars hanging on the wall far behind him, says. The setup puts the focus on Robertson’s individuality, his alone-ness, in what others trumpet as a collection of extraordinary musicians. “There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts, than the Band. Simply their name: The Band. That was it,” fan Bruce Springsteen says. “I was in great awe of their brotherhood. It was the soul of the Band,” notes Eric Clapton, who says he wanted to join the group made up of singer-songwriter and guitarist Robertson, singer and bassist Rick Danko, singer and keyboardist Richard Manuel, singer and drummer Levon Helm, and keyboardist and accordionist Garth Hudson.
When Robertson, who was born in Toronto in 1943, talks about his childhood — his mother was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reserve, which had a profound effect on him musically, and his biological father was a Jewish gangster, although he was raised by an abusive stepfather — the film is revelatory, with archival photographs and live footage of Robertson’s early bands and his time with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Robertson shares mesmerizing anecdotes about going electric with Bob Dylan, recording the Basement Tapes in a house called Big Pink, and discussing his craft. “I don’t have much of a process of like I’m thinking about this, and now I’m going to write a song and it’s gonna be about that,” he explains. “A lot of times, the creative process is trying to catch yourself off guard. And you sit down and you’ve got a blank canvas and you don’t know what you’re gonna do and you just see what happens.”
Hawkins speaks glowingly of his protégé Robertson, who wrote his first songs for Hawkins when he was only fifteen. Roher also talks to executive producer Martin Scorsese, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, record producer John Simon, road manager Jonathan Taplin, equipment manager Bill Scheele, photographer John Scheele, Asylum Records creator David Geffen, and musicians Dylan, Taj Mahal, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Jimmy Vivino, who all rave about Robertson and the Band. “They were totally in love with their music, and they were in love with each other,” photographer Elliott Landy says. “I never saw any jealousy, I never saw any arguments, I never saw them disagree. They were always supporting each other. They were five brothers, very clearly five brothers who loved each other, and I never saw anything but that.”
Of course, Roher cannot talk to Manuel, Danko, and Helm, who are all dead, and Hudson did not participate in the documentary. Robertson and his wife, Dominique, paint a harrowing picture of the Band’s severe strife as drugs and alcohol tear them apart. There’s really no one, aside from a brief point made by guitarist Larry Campbell, to offer an opposing view to Robertson’s tale, which puts him on a golden throne despite some very public disagreements, particularly with Helm over songwriting credit and royalties. Robertson speaks enthusiastically and intelligently throughout the film, but it’s clear from the get-go that these are his carefully constructed, perhaps selective memories about what happened. But Roher doesn’t disguise that conceit; the film is named after one of Robertson’s solo songs, and the second half of the title is, after all, Robbie Robertson & the Band, as if Robertson is separate from the rest.
One of the main surprises is Robertson’s claim that the Last Waltz concert at Winterland in 1976 was not meant as a farewell but just a pause; Roher and Robertson fail to point out that the group continued to tour and record without Robertson. On his sixth solo album, Sinematic, which was released last September, Robertson has a song about the Band, the aforementioned “Once Were Brothers,” that can be heard at the start of the film. “Oh, once were brothers / Brothers no more / We lost a connection / After the war / There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no one cold / Once were brothers / Brothers no more,” Robertson sings. “When that curtain comes down / We’ll let go of the past / Tomorrow’s another day / Some things weren’t meant to last.” It’s a sad testament to a storied legacy, packed with amazing photos and live clips that make it a must-see for fans of the group. Once Were Brothers opens at IFC on February 21, with music photographer Elliott Landy, who appears in the film, participating in a Q&A at the 7:45 show Friday night.