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.
“Down by the boathouse at Shaker Lake / When there wasn’t nothing but love to make / They were two young lovers wishing on the stars above / Well, they carved their initials in an old birch tree / With a heart and an arrow and a ’sixty-three / You had to be blind not to see / It was a perfect love,” Ohio-born singer-songwriter Marc Cohn sings on “Perfect Love,” a track from his 1991 self-titled debut album. Cohn is likely to perform that song, and many other favorites about love, hope, faith, and heartbreak, when he comes to New York City for his annual Valentine’s Day show, February 14 at the Concert Hall at New York Society for Ethical Culture. An honorary member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, with whom he recorded the 2019 album Work to Do, Cohn survived a shooting in 2005, after which he released several live and studio albums and has toured relentlessly. He can be seen often at City Winery, which is presenting the Valentine’s Day shindig with Metropolitan Entertainment. Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, whose new album, Blindsided, comes out next month, will open the show. Continuing the romantic theme, Cohn will also be at the Beacon Theatre on March 12 as part of the Love Rocks NYC benefit for God’s Love We Deliver! with Dave Matthews, Chris & Rich Robinson, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Warren Haynes, Joss Stone, Macy Gray, and others, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, Paul Shaffer, Jeff Garlin, and Ellie Kemper.
If you haven’t seen Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas perform in New York City, you haven’t been paying attention. She and her company have presented A Love Supreme at New York Live Arts in 2017, Six Brandenburg Concertos at Park Avenue Armory in 2018, and Transfigured Night at Baryshnikov Arts Center in 2019. This week de Keersmaeker and Rosas are performing the North America premiere of Mitten Wir Im Leben Sind / Bach6Cellosuiten (In the Midst of Life / Bach’s Cello Suites) at NYU’s Skirball Center, a series of solos accompanied by master French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, who plays a 1696 cello by Gioffredo Cappa, with de Keersmaeker joining each dancer for a duet.
The two-hour piece, which debuted at the 2017 Ruhrtriennale in Germany in 2017, consists of six Bach sections written between 1717 and 1723 (BWV 1007-1012) — the allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets, and gigue — created with and danced by Boštjan Antončič, Marie Goudot, Julien Monty, Michaël Pomero, and De Keersmaeker. The stark staging, in which the dancers move across a black space around a seated Queyras, with swirling white chalk marks and green and red tape placed on the light-colored floor, features costumes by An D’Huys, sound by Alban Moraud, and lighting by Luc Schaltin. The title comes from Martin Luther’s version of the Latin antiphon “Media vita in morte sumus”; the Lutheran hymn reads, in part: “In the midst of life / We are in death / Who shall help us in the strife / Lest the Foe confound us? / Thou only, Lord, Thou only!” In addition, Bach wrote a freestanding chorale (BWV 383) based on Luther’s three-stanza liturgy; de Keersmaeker has also discussed how she saw the Luther quote on the tombstone of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch. The February 14 show will be followed by a talk with de Keersmaeker and Queyras, moderated by Center for Ballet and the Arts founder and director Jennifer Homans.
WITHIN OUR GATES (Oscar Micheaux, 1920) / ST. LOUIS BLUES (Dudley Murphy, 1929)
209 West Houston St.
Tuesday, January 28, 6:35
Series continues through February 13
#OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale have you disappointed and mad? Film Forum is offering just the medicine with its four-week, sixty-film festival “Black Women: Trailblazing African American Actresses & Images, 1920 – 2001.” Running through February 13, the wide-ranging series consists of movies starring Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge, Cicely Tyson, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, Angela Bassett, Diahann Carroll, Oprah Winfrey, Juanita Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Foster, Ella Fitzgerald, Vonetta McGee, Alfre Woodard, Lonette McKee, Lynn Whitfield, Janet Jackson, Queen Latifah, Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Whitney Houston, Halle Berry, and many others, made by black, white, male, and female directors. The oldest film being presented is the oldest surviving film made by an African American director, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, on January 28 at 6:35. A response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, Micheaux’s film, released in 1920 after trouble with the censor board, packs a whole lot into its seventy-nine minutes, giving the film an epic feel as it deals with violent crime, rape, slavery, poverty, education, love quadrangles, Jim Crow, subservient blacks, mixed-race romance, the Great Migration, and other incendiary topics.
“I have always tried to make my photoplays present the truth, to lay before the Race a cross-section of its own life, to view the Colored heart from close range,” Micheaux explained on January 24, 1925. “It is only by presenting those portions of the Race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. . . . The recognition of our true situation will react in itself as a stimulus for self-advancement.” He does just that with Within Our Gates, in which Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young woman in love with Conrad Drebert (James D. Ruffin). However, Sylvia’s supposed friend, the manipulative Alma Prichard (Floy Clements), is also in love with Conrad and determined to steal him from her. Meanwhile, Alma’s stepbrother, gangster Larry Prichard (Jack Chenault), wants Sylvia, who is not interested in him. Larry is being closely watched by a detective, Philip Gentry (William Smith), who was tipped off by the FBI as to his whereabouts.
A car accident leads Sylvia to meet Dr. V. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and philanthropist Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who wants to help Sylvia, but Elena’s friend, the racist Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), would rather see no women gain the right to vote if a new amendment would include black women as well. The story shifts gears when Alma tells Dr. Vivian about Sylvia’s past, involving Sylvia’s adopted family, a robbery and shooting, a white landlord (Ralph Johnson) and his brother (Grant Gorman), and a tattletale Uncle Tom (E. G. Tatum) seeking to gain favors, all shown in flashback. It’s a complex tale filled with surprising twists, and it’s a critically important film in the history of black cinema.
Micheaux’s first work was The Homesteader, which is lost; he would go on to make such pictures as Body and Soul, Veiled Aristocrats, and Underworld. The Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center restored Within Our Gates in 1993 from a lone Spanish print, so most intertitles were rewritten in English, and a section in the middle was lost. In 2016, DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) added a guitar-and-piano-based soundtrack, but the Film Forum screening of a 35mm print will be accompanied by a live score played by Steve Sterner. In addition, it will be preceded by Dudley Murphy’s sixteen-minute 1929 short St. Louis Blues, highlighted by Bessie Smith in her only film appearance. The series continues with such films as both Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown, The Color Purple, Set It Off, Lady Sings the Blues, Monster’s Ball, and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A.
Brooklyn-based Object Collection returns to La MaMa this week after taking its Fugazi opera-in-suspension It’s All True to Norway, England, and Texas, with the utopian space opera You Are Under Our Space Control, making its world premiere January 23 – February 2. The company, whose “works upset habitual notions of time, pace, progression, and virtuosity. . . . [valuing] accumulation above cohesion,” goes on an adventure into the great unknown, exploring “space travel, transhumanism, astronautics, and the resurrection of the dead” in a world devoid of natural resources.
The show is written and directed by Object Collection cofounder Kara Feely, the text inspired by Sun Ra, the Russian Cosmists, and astronaut interviews; the music is by cofounder Travis Just, inspired by John Cage’s 1951 “Music of Changes.” The laboratory-like set design is by Peiyi Wong, with lighting by Jeanette Yew, video by Eric Magnus, sound by Robin Margolis, and streaming and programming by Scott Cazan. The multimedia piece will be performed by Steven Ali, Avi Glickstein, Yuki Kawahisa, Annie Kunjappy, Alessandro Magania, Daniel Allen Nelson, Nicolás Noreña, and Fulya Peker along with percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, guitarist Taylor Levine, and singer-songwriter Ava Mendoza. You can get a taste of what’s in store by checking out the music here, including such songs as “Full Contrast,” “Humans, Humans,” “Total Trance,” and “More Hospitable than Antarctica Might Be.” Once the run ends, video feeds will be posted online so you can create your own version of YAUOSC.