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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1, 2020


Featuring Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hawkins, Dominique Robertson, Jonathan Taplin, John Simon, Elliott Landy, David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Martin Scorsese, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Jann Wenner, George Semkiw, Grant Smith, John Hammond, Jimmy Vivino, Bill Scheele, John Scheele, Larry Campbell and archival footage of Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, George Harrison and Bob Dylan.

Directed by Daniel Roher.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 102 minutes. Rated R.

“Once Were Brothers” – the Robbie Robertson song about his time with the legendary 60s folk-rock collective The Band – is both a sweet and bittersweet look at the days gone by. It has love, but it has no permanence, no nostalgia. These were brothers who fractured, wounds that never totally healed, a bond which was allowed to fray.

The documentary that shares its title holds a similar perspective.

As lead guitarist and main songwriter for the Band – and one of the members of the group who called for the split, though he insists now he expected it to be temporary, but they never quite returned to the fold – Robbie Robertson has gotten a lot of the blowback for the group’s demise. Particularly from his best friend and former singer Levon Helm, who grew rather bitter about Robertson’s growth of prominence in the band.

Robertson was also one of the few band members who was not an addict at one point or another.

It’s not a mistake that this documentary is subtitled Robbie Robertson and The Band, because this is about Robertson’s early years and his specific time with the group – which did reform for almost 20 years in the 1980s and 1990s without him. Once Were Brothers never discusses this post-Last Waltz incarnation of The Band, nor does it take on Robertson’s decades of solo work.

Instead it follows the story from Robertson’s childhood in Toronto, the early days when The Band came together as the musicians for semi-popular roots-rock act Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, the time spent backing Bob Dylan on tour and the short-lived (less than 10 years) glory days of the group.

It does not take into consideration the fact that while The Band was a very well-respected group, they were not necessarily the biggest stars in the world. They only had two top 40 hit singles – three, if you count a Joan Baez cover version of one of their songs. Most casual music fans would be hard pressed to name more than four or five of their tunes, if that.

In fact, at this point in history they are probably better remembered for being Bob Dylan’s backing band in the infamous “gone electric” tour and for the documentary about their 1976 star-studded farewell concert, The Last Waltz.

The Band’s musical divorce turned ugly, and Robertson tries to keep this documentary – which is based on his 2016 autobiography Testimony– relatively upbeat, trying not to pick at the scars.

Sadly, those scars are still deep. Garth Hudson, the only other living member of the Band’s classic lineup, does not give any new interviews for the film, though the shy, soft-spoken Hudson was often an ally to Robertson in group struggles back in the day. The other three members have passed on, and obviously can only be heard from in long-ago archival discussions. Only Helm is shown talking extensively, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko (and Hudson) only have a few short old passages each.

Therefore, there is little or no pushback on Robertson’s stories – his version of the truth is the only one getting aired here. Which is not necessarily saying that Robertson’s beliefs about what created and destroyed The Band are incorrect; it is just pointing out that it is the perspective of one person out of a group of five. The others may have had differing viewpoints – specifically Helm, who told a very different version of The Band’s history in his own autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire.

Still, Robertson is a smart and engaging host, and there is lots of fine performance footage for a band which is not necessarily overly well covered. Once Were Brothers may have a limited audience, but it is nice that this band of brothers is being remembered and celebrated.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: February 25, 2020.

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