American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 8, $59-$299
Following the disappointing reaction to his third major play, Summer and Smoke, a Broadway failure in 1948 after the runaway successes of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams headed to Sicily with the love of his life, Frank Merlo. The trip reenergized Williams and inspired him to write The Rose Tattoo, which won four Tonys in 1951, including Best Play, Best Supporting Actor (Eli Wallach), and Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton). “The Rose Tattoo was my love-play to the world,” he wrote in Memoirs. “It was permeated with the happy young love for Frankie and I dedicated the book to him, saying: ‘To Frankie in return for Sicily.’” Roundabout’s revival of the play at the American Airlines Theatre, its ninth Williams show since 1975, is a fiery, passionate affair imbued with broad comedy, along with muddling confusion.
The play is set in 1950 in a Gulf Coast village populated by Sicilian immigrants. Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) is eagerly awaiting the return of her truck-driver husband, who she calls the Baron. “The clock is a fool. I don’t listen to it. My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tick, it says love-love!” she tells Assunta (Carolyn Mignini), an elderly fattuchiere. But the Baron never makes it home, leaving Serafina a young widow raising a daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), by herself. Regularly surrounded by a Greek chorus of women in black (Andréa Burns as Peppina, Susan Cella as Giuseppina, Jennifer Sánchez as Mariella, and Ellyn Marie Marsh as Violetta) and with the Strega (Constance Shulman) ever lurking about, the young widow mourns intensely for three years, praying to her very special statue of the Virgin Mary at a shrine at stage front and to the urn that holds her husband’s ashes. Serafina, a seamstress having trouble sewing her life back together, swears to be faithful to the Baron’s memory while she tries to protect Rosa’s virginity as Rosa strenuously tries to lose it to Jack (Burke Swanson), an eighteen-year-old sailor in the throes of young love. But when she overhears Bessie (Paige Gilbert) and Flora (Portia) gossiping about how the Baron cheated on her with the fancy Estelle Hoehengarten (Tina Benko), Rose has to rethink her life, especially when she meets another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott), as he’s being harassed by a racist traveling salesman (Greg Hildreth). Alvaro reminds her of the Baron, lighting a fire inside her she hasn’t felt for a long time.
Obie-wining director Trip Cullman zeroes in on the comic aspects of Williams’s story; if you’ve seen the 1955 movie starring Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar as Serafina, a role Williams wrote for her, you might be surprised at just how funny it is, including a bizarre moment with condoms that led to an arrest in a 1957 Irish production. Meanwhile, a scene involving Bessie and Portia coming to Serafina to pick up clothing she made for them is so racist it’s hard not to wonder why it’s done in that style in this day and age. Many of Cullman’s plays have unique and unusual sets that offer complex ways to look at the work, from Lobby Hero and Significant Other to Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow and The Pain of My Belligerence. But Mark Wendland’s stage for The Rose Tattoo is confounding. It’s a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, with a wooden walkway over sand, a living room, a window, a flock of pink flamingos at the back, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections of the tide rolling in on the shore on three sides. Characters enter and exit inconsistently in too many different ways so it’s hard to tell where everything leads to and from. Tomei (The Realistic Joneses, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage), whose maternal grandmother was Sicilian, is steamy and, appropriately, ardent — Serafina means “ardent” in Italian — as the zealous widow, imbuing her with a fierce sexuality, leaving Elliott (Black Watch, Red Velvet), in his Broadway debut, to play catch-up. (The pair was played by Stapleton and Wallach in the 1951 original, Magnani and Burt Lancaster in the 1955 film, Stapleton and Harry Guardino in the 1966 Broadway revival, and Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in the 1995 Broadway adaptation.) Rubin is a force as Rosa, representing the next generation of Italian Americans who are not about to do things the way their parents did. Jonathan Linden contributes country-folk blues off stage right, enhancing the period setting.
“During the past two years I have been, for the first time in my life, happy and at home with someone and I think of this play as a monument to that happiness, a house built of images and words for that happiness to live in,” Williams wrote to Elia Kazan in June 1950 when asking him to direct the show. “But in that happiness there is the long, inescapable heritage of the painful and the perplexed like the dark corners of a big room.” Williams even threw in a nod to Merlo, the man responsible for his happiness and whom he called the Little Horse, by giving Alvaro the last name Mangiacavallo, which means “eat a horse.” This latest Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo also manages to find happiness amid the painful and the perplexed.
A FISH IN THE BATHTUB (Joan Micklin Silver, 1999)
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, November 8
Brooklyn-born duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were the first couple of American comedy for six decades, from appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, in popular ads for Blue Nun wine, and on their own brief sitcom and more recent web series to their solo gigs on Seinfeld and The King of Queens for Stiller and Archie Bunker’s Place and Kate McShane for four-time Emmy and Tony nominee Meara, who passed away in 2015 at the age of eighty-five. They starred in only one film together, 1999’s little-seen senior-citizen rom-com A Fish in the Bathtub, which is finally getting its theatrical release for its twentieth anniversary, in a 2K restoration opening November 8 at the Quad.
The film, written by Raphael D. Silver, John Silverstein, David Chudnovsky, is part of Joan Micklin Silver’s unofficial Jewish trilogy, which also comprises 1975’s Hester Street and 1988’s Crossing Delancey, neither of which A Fish in the Bathtub can hold a candle to. Stiller and Meara play long-married couple Sam and Molly, who get into a tiff one night at a card game with their friends; the loud and obnoxious Sam shouts down the much calmer, easygoing Molly in a thoroughly embarrassing manner, so she leaves him and moves in with their son, real estate agent Joel (Mark Ruffalo), and his wife and daughter. While Molly starts seeing dullard Lou Moskowitz (Bob Dishy), Jerry shares his problems with a large carp he is keeping in the bathtub. Joel and his sister, Ruthie (Jane Adams), are experiencing their own complicated situations — one of Joel’s clients, the married Tracy (Pamela Gray), is heavily flirting with him, while Ruthie has a new boyfriend at work. Sam isn’t about to apologize, so Molly isn’t about to come back to him, but it is clear that they need each other, for better or worse.
Stiller’s screaming antics are over the top even for him, although he does display some tenderness, while Meara is sweetly endearing in a motherly/grandmotherly way, and it’s great to see a young Ruffalo shaping his craft. The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces, including Doris Roberts, Louis Zorich, Phyllis Newman, Val Avery, Elizabeth Franz, Paul Benedict, David Deblinger, Jonathan Hogan, and Mordecai Lawner — even if you don’t recognize many of those names, you will recognize their faces. There’s a Woody Allen–light aspect to much of the story and the minor characters; the film has some lovely moments, and Stiller, who is now ninety-two, delivers several hilarious laugh-out-loud howlers, but the pace is slow and the narrative circuitous, evoking the endless path taken by the poor carp. So this film might not become part of Stiller and Meara’s legacy — which also consists of their talented children, Amy and Ben, in addition to their other work — but it’s always good to seem them together, whatever the format. Oh, and here’s hoping their real life was nothing like this.
The New Group at the Daryl Roth Theatre
103 East 15th St. between Irving Pl. & Park Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $107-$252
You don’t need me to tell you that Peter Dinklage is an extraordinary actor. You can see for yourself in the New Group’s world premiere production of Cyrano, Erica Schmidt’s musical retelling of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 novel Cyrano de Bergerac, which opened last night at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Dinklage, who soared above his castmates in winning four Emmys as the wise, debauched Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, commands the stage from the very start of the play; his eyes and body are so emotive, you cannot take your eyes off him. As opposed to many other stars who have portrayed Cyrano onstage and onscreen — Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, Steve Martin, and Kevin Kline among them — Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic nose; he is just himself, as he is. When Cyrano says early on, “I am living proof that God has a sick sense of humor,” it takes on additional meaning, given Dinklage’s achondroplasia. When he’s not onstage, you search for him, whether it’s when you hear his voice booming from the side of the audience or as he waits in the wings, watching the action in character, partially hidden by hanging ropes. Alas, if only the rest of the show were up to the same standards.
Cyrano is a brave, feared member of a company of guards; he is a man of both the pen and the sword, as expert with a blade as he is with a pencil. He is madly, desperately in love; the object of his affection is his childhood friend Roxanne (Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas Jones), but the object of her affection is the novice guard Christian (Blake Jenner), a handsome man with not much upstairs. “I’m so stupid. It’s shameful,” he acknowledges. Roxanne is also desired by the wealthy and powerful Duke De Guiche (Ritchie Coster), who is charge of the company; he is determined to have Roxanne as his wife. Roxanne is love-starved as well: She sings, “I’d give anything for someone to say / That they can’t live without me and they’ll be there forever / I’d give anything for someone to say to me / That no matter how bad it gets they won’t turn away from me.” She falls for Christian at first sight, but he’s such a dull, dense beauty that he has no idea how to woo her, so Cyrano, who cannot bear to see Roxanne disappointed, starts ghostwriting love letters for Christian and feeding him romantic lines to say to her. It all comes to a head when Cyrano, Christian, and De Guiche are in a fierce battle on the front lines of the war.
Adapted and directed by Schmidt (All the Fine Boys), who is married to Dinklage, Cyrano is all about the poetry and power of words. Cyrano lives to write letters. When his friend Ragueneau (Nehal Joshi), a pastry chef, is being threatened by one hundred men coming to kill him, Ragueneau explains it’s because of a political poem he wrote. When De Guiche is intrigued by Cyrano’s nose but can’t bring himself to be direct about it, Cyrano says, “You seem at a loss for words and, good sir, you are staring.” But Cyrano doesn’t believe his way with words or a sword (oddly, the two words are anagrams of each other) will capture his true love’s heart. Dinklage (The Station Agent, A Month in the Country) sings in his affecting, compelling low register, “Roxanne, what am I supposed to say? / Words are only glass on a string. / The more I arrange them and line up and change them / The more they mean the same thing.” When he makes the deal with Christian, he says, “I am a poet. My words are wasted now — they need to be — to be spoken aloud. I will make you eloquent and you, you will make me handsome.” The battle scene is particularly poetic, beautifully directed by Schmidt and choreographed by Jeff and Rick Kuperman, with snow falling down as the men and women soldiers say farewell to loved ones, perhaps for the last time.
The supporting cast is solid, led by Josh A. Dawson as Cyrano’s trusted right-hand man, Le Bret; Nehal Joshi as pastry chef and political poet Ragueneau; Grace McLean as Roxanne’s constant chaperone, Marie; Scott Stangland as the actor Montgomery and the cadet Carbon; Christopher Gurr as theater owner Jodelet and the priest; and Hillary Fisher as Orange Girl. Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s narrow set features a long horizontal wall with sections that open up to reveal a room of chefs baking, a door, and a balcony where Roxanne calls out to Christian, who is coached by Cyrano in his replies. Words cover the wall like it’s a large blackboard; among the only legible phrases is the heartbreaking “And she loved me back,” which also pops up in one of the songs. The music, by twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National, and the lyrics, by the National lead singer Matt Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser (who cowrites lyrics for the band), are not as inventive as one might expect from a group with members who specialize in nontraditional melodies and experimentation, whether on an album, in an art installation, or even for an avant-garde opera.
For the show, which was workshopped in 2018 by Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, to really grab your heart and soul, the audience has to fall in love with Roxanne in order to understand why the Duke, Christian, and Cyrano do. But that never happens. As played by Cephas Jones, there’s nothing that sets Roxanne apart; she seems to be a nice young woman but not a heartthrob that makes men desire her on sight. And by the treacly ending, you’ll be wondering why the brilliant Cyrano ever wanted her in the first place. However, Dinklage’s gripping, poignant performance rises above everything else, making Cyrano well worth seeing despite its flaws.
SCHOOL OF SEDUCTION: 3 STORIES FROM RUSSIA (Alina Rudnitskaya, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Saturday, November 9, 9:15
Festival runs November 6-15
In 2009, Russian filmmaker Alina Rudnitskaya made the short film Bitch Academy, about a school where a man taught women of all ages how to attract potential husbands the old-fashioned way, by flaunting their sexuality and playing dumb. She has now expanded that into the full-length feature documentary School of Seduction: 3 Stories from Russia, making its North American debut at IFC Center as part of the DOC NYC festival. Rudnitskaya follows three women over seven years as they take the workshop run by Vladimir Rakovsky and then apply what they’ve learned to their life, with varying degrees of success. Rakovsky, a former 911 hotline worker who is not exactly a smooth-talking Romeo or Don Juan — he actually talks and acts like someone you might avoid on the subway — teaches the women how to bend over, how to wiggle their butts, and how to jump in a man’s arms and turn him on. “What did you think it was about? The psychological aspects of gender politics in modern society?” he says, defending his techniques, which are questionable at best in the twenty-first century (or any time, really). But there is a severe shortage of available men in Russia, so he convinces the eager women that they need to play this game in order to snag a wealthy suitor, that they are not able to survive in this world on their own.
“What a nightmare!” Lida Lodigenskaya declares about Rakovsky’s ideals. Lida lives with her mother and is in love with a married father of two. She is combative and determined, sure that he will eventually leave his wife; surprisingly, he allows himself to be filmed with Lida despite his personal situation. Vika Sitnik is in a lackluster marriage and is in the process of opening a lingerie store in a mall. She suffers from anxiety, sharing her fears with a psychologist. Her mother does not understand her crisis, stuck in the old ways. “I feel bad inside,” Vika says as she reaches a turning point in her life. Diana Belova is a single mother whose parents threw her out of the house so she lives with her grandmother. She makes the most out of the workshop, creating a fake, fanciful existence built on attractiveness and elegance. “I believe in fairy tales,” she says as she meets a series of men, not searching for true love but for someone who will be able to give her the upper-crust life she feels she deserves. “I need to be the best,” she explains.
Rudnitskaya is not making fun of any of these people but rather focusing on the difficulty women are having finding the right person to share their life. They have been reduced to becoming kewpie dolls to catch and keep a man, which is both sad and heartbreaking to watch. The film is screening on November 9 at 9:15, with executive producers Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjær, Eva Mulvad, and Rose Grönkjær in attendance to talk about the film.
ELLIOTT ERWITT — SILENCE SOUNDS GOOD (Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Sunday, November 10, 4:30
“I hate to give explanations,” photographer Elliott Erwitt says in Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu’s lighthearted Elliott Erwitt — Silence Sounds Good, having its North American premiere November 10 at IFC Center as part of the DOC NYC festival. Sanfeliu, a protégé of Erwitt’s, follows her mentor around the world for two years as he goes through his vast archives; exercises in his Manhattan apartment overlooking the park; returns to Cuba for a new book and exhibition and meets former ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso, who passed away last month at the age of ninety-eight; snaps pictures on the street at the spur of the moment; and shows some of his iconic images, including photos of presidents and popes, a series on dogs (especially one that steals his heart in Cuba), a photo of segregated drinking fountains in North Carolina, and others that reveal his innate sense of composition. But he doesn’t have a lot to say about them; “I’m not very good about talking about pictures,” he notes at an illustrated lecture.
Now eighty-nine, Erwitt, who was born in France, moved to Italy when he was three, then came to the United States when he was ten, has a dry, self-effacing sense of humor, although he has a tremendous amount of fun taking unusual self-portraits. Sanfeliu often lets her camera linger on him as he sits quietly, with nothing more to say, preferring to let his work speak for itself. “Photography is about having a point of view, nothing else,” he says. “With calm, but also with passion. But without making too much noise about it. It’s the photo which must make noise.” When he does pontificate, he has a tendency to come up with some doozies. “I don’t think anything is serious,” he says. “Nothing is serious, and everything is serious. . . . Well, it’s one of those conundrums. You might say that I’m serious about not being serious.” Erwitt will be at the DOC NYC screening to perhaps talk about it — he does appreciate his silence — along with Sanfeliu, producer François Bertrand, editor Scott Stevenson, and writer Mark Monroe. Preceding it is Tasha Van Zandt’s fourteen-minute short One Thousand Stories: The Making of a Mural, about JR’s video mural project, The Chronicles of San Francisco.
“You’re the most beautiful thing in our life, but what a life I’ve brought you into. You didn’t choose this. Will you ever forgive me?” Waad al-Kateab asks in the extraordinary documentary For Sama. In 2012 during the Arab Spring, Waad, a marketing student at Aleppo University, joined the protests against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. She started taking photos and cell-phone video, then got a film camera as she became a citizen journalist, documenting the escalating conflict, trying to find moments of joy amid the brutal, senseless murders of innocent men, women, and children. She met and fell in love with heroic doctor Hamza al-Kateab, who was determined to keep his hospital running as the bombings got closer. Waad and Hamza got married, and on January 1, 2016, she gave birth to a healthy girl, Sama.
The film, directed by Waad (who also served as cinematographer and producer) and Edward Watts (Escape from ISIS), is a poignant, unflinching confession from mother to daughter, explaining in graphic detail what the families of Aleppo are going through as Russian and Syrian forces and Islamic extremists maintain a constant attack. “We never thought the world would let this happen,” Waad explains as the body count rises — which she intimately shows, not shying away from shots of bloodied victims being brought into the hospital, a pile of dead children, or a desperate attempt to save the life of a mother and a newborn after an emergency caesarean. “I keep filming. It gives me a reason to be here. It makes the nightmares feel worthwhile,” Waad says.
She captures bombings as they happen, films families huddled inside their homes while machine guns can be heard outside, talks to a child who says he wants to be an architect when he grows up so he can rebuild Aleppo. Because she is a woman, Waad gains access to other women that would not be available to a male filmmaker as they share their stories of love and despair. Waad and Hamza plant a lovely garden to bring color to the dank, brown and gray city. A snowfall covers the turmoil in a beautiful sheet of white. The pitter-patter of rain offers a brief respite. But everything eventually gets destroyed as Waad and Hamza struggle with the choice of leaving with Sama or staying to continue their critical roles in the rebellion, she depicting the personal, heart-wrenching images of war — in 2016, her Inside Aleppo reports aired on British television — he tending to the ever-increasing wounded. “The happiness you brought was laced with fear,” Waad tells Sama in voiceover narration. “Our new life with you felt so fragile, as the freedom we felt in Aleppo.” Winner of the Prix L’Œil d’Or for Best Documentary at Cannes among other awards, For Sama is screening at Cinepolis Chelsea on November 10 and 11 as part of the DOC NYC festival, with director Waad al-Kateab, codirector Edward Watts, and subject Dr. Hamza al-Kateab expected to attend to discuss the film.
Ars Nova at Greenwich House
27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave. South
Monday - Saturday through November 23, $35-$65
Liza Birkenmeier’s Dr. Ride’s American Beach House lands at a rather fortuitous moment in time. On October 18, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-woman spacewalk in history. The play, which opened tonight at Ars Nova at Greenwich House, takes place on June 17, 1983, the night before astronaut and physicist Dr. Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space, aboard the Challenger shuttle. Dr. Ride was not initially part of the narrative; Birkenmeier originally intended to make a grand epic disproving the scientific method but instead concentrated on one scene, set on June 17, 1983, and only discovered later, after the work was already under way, that it had the connection to Dr. Ride, altering the plot significantly.
Best friends Matilda (Erin Markey) and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) are drinking, smoking, and gossiping on the roof of Harriet’s apartment building in St. Louis, supposedly a meeting of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, which has nothing to do with literature but is just an excuse for the two of them to hang out. Matilda, who occasionally breaks into song, is married to Arthur and has two children, while Harriet, who writes poetry, is living with her boyfriend, Luke. Their main rule is to never discuss men while on the roof, but they can’t help themselves, especially since Harriet has an incredible story to tell about a one-night stand she just had with a biker, something she has never done before. “I don’t want to break the rule, but let’s talk about this through my perspective,” Harriet explains. “He is an object and I am the subject. He is the, the, commodity and I’m the . . .” It might not pass the Bechdel test, but it still keeps the women in charge.
They are soon joined on the roof — superbly designed with a cool slant and little in the way of safety by Kimie Nishikawa — by Matilda’s friend Meg (Marga Gomez), a butch, stout lesbian in boots, a baseball cap, and a Motörhead T-shirt. “Do you have a husband?” an oblivious Harriet asks Meg, who replies definitively, “Of course not.” Meg is bold and direct, open and honest. “Do you hate men?” Harriet asks, referring to a comment Meg makes regarding her job as a nurse. “No no, I don’t hate men; they only make me homicidal. I’ll be fine,” Meg answers. Meanwhile, hovering about is the persnickety Norma (Susan Blommaert), who is making sure that the building is run as efficiently as possible. As the long countdown begins for Dr. Ride’s journey into space — she is spending the night in NASA’s historic Florida beach house, where the astronauts have a barbecue before blasting off the planet — the four women continue to chatter away as Meg suspects that Harriet and Matilda don’t even realize that they are in love with each other.
Smartly directed by Katie Brook (How to Get into Buildings, She Is King) with a keen sense of humor and suggestive sexuality, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House incorporates the scientific method through exploration, observation, and testing. The all-woman cast and crew have a firm grasp of the material, which subtly takes on gender roles, societal expectations, sex, love, and power. It’s no coincidence that the two main characters are named after heroic female figures from children’s literature, Harriet the Spy and Roald Dahl’s magical Matilda. The two women are obviously in love with each other — Matilda calls Harriet “cupcake” and “pookie” — but are unable to understand what that even means, as they are stuck in traditional modes of thought involving the battle of the sexes, despite all that’s happening around them. Harriet uses binoculars while up on the roof — evoking Dr. Ride out in space, using a telescope — but while she peers longingly at a fashionable kitchen across the way, Meg sees a hapless man trying to kill a bug in his bedroom, criticizing his lack of skills in bed. In a reverse Samson and Delilah, Harriet decides to give up her firm control over the biker after he shaves off his facial hair; as opposed to him losing strength, she loses interest.
Despite how funny the ninety-minute play is — and it’s very funny — a bittersweet edge hangs in the air. Dr. Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at the age of sixty-one, and her relationship first with Molly Tyson in the early 1980s and then with her longtime partner, Tam O’Shaugnessy, only came to light after her death, in her obituary; she was unable to come out during her lifetime. And less than three years after her trip into space, the very same Challenger space shuttle she flew in broke apart in the air, killing all seven people on board, including thirty-seven-year-old high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. But Birkenmeier’s (littleghost, The Way Out West) poetic yet realistic dialogue — the actors frequently hesitate, repeat words, and speak in incomplete sentences — and the engaging performances by Gomez (Latin Standards, Pound), Sieh (RoosevElvis, The Band’s Visit), and Markey (Singlet, A Ride on the Irish Cream) make this more than just another theatrical ride through the contemporary female psyche, in space and on a St. Louis rooftop.
ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON & THE BAND (Daniel Roher, 2019)
333 West 23rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Wednesday, November 6, 7:00 & 7:30
Festival runs November 6-15
The tenth annual DOC NYC festival, which has grown dramatically since its humble beginnings, consisting now of more than three hundred screenings and special events over ten days at three venues, kicks off in a big way on November 6 with Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & the Band, 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 in 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: Robbie Robertson & the Band is screening at 7:00 and 7:30 on November 6 at the SVA Theatre, with Roher and Robertson on hand to discuss the work.