Movie Review - Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019)

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"Whatever happens," Bob Dylan told The Hawks when the folk singer went electric in 1965, "don't stop playing." A maxim that helped the guys hired to back him up keep playing through scores of boos, jeers, and occasionally projectiles launched onstage, when Bob Dylan thinks back on his bandmates in Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, he says, "they were gallant knights for sticking behind me."

As we learn in Daniel Roher's documentary, however, it turns out that one knight in particular — Robbie Robertson — had been living that adage since he joined his first band at thirteen, just weeks after he discovered rock 'n roll music in a vivid experience he calls "his own personal big bang." Quickly evolving beyond the few chords he'd learned from his maternal ancestors at the Six Nations Indian Reserve, the guitar prodigy went from playing in a Toronto based band to writing songs for Ronnie Hawkins at fifteen to joining his backing band The Hawks one year later. When he auditioned for Hawkins, he promised the "Bo Diddley" singer "you'll never have to tell me to work harder," and Hawkins knew from experience that this was true.

Learning the ropes of the band and the road from drummer Levon Helm  —  who Robertson calls so gifted that "he just seemed to glow in the dark"  — shortly into his tenure with The Hawks, he and Helm took on the responsibility of hiring new musicians to join the group including Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. Soon surpassing their leader, the five Hawks eventually went off on their own. And after a detour serving as knights of Bob Dylan's electrical round table, they reunited once more, moving into an ugly big pink house in Woodstock, New York (chosen by Dylan's manager Albert Grossman) where they recorded their legendary 1968 debut Music from Big Pink, not as The Hawks this time, but The Band.

Chosen both for its lack of pretension and the fact that they were getting known around town by the same description, the story of this band of five brothers is given the premium documentary treatment in Canadian filmmaker Roher's first feature length work (beyond one sixty-three minute doc he made a few years earlier). Lovingly crafted, it's a wonderful stepbrother to one of the all-time greatest rock docs in the form of Martin Scorsese's 1978 release The Last Waltz, which chronicled the final concert The Band ever performed on Thanksgiving night at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in 1976.

Sharing one particularly memorable Hawkins related anecdote with Waltz, in Once Were Brothers, Scorsese talks about the reason he made his doc the way that he did. Choosing to shoot the band from the stage and largely ignore the the audience, Brothers executive producer Scorsese notes that he wanted to tell the story of The Band through the way that they related to one another as men and musicians.

Once Were Brothers is missing Waltz's communal feel, unintentionally, yes, as sadly there are only two remaining members of The Band still alive (Robertson and Hudson) but also, largely by design. In a way, perhaps it's best appreciated as not only a companion to Waltz but also a continuation of Robertson's critically acclaimed bestselling memoir Testimony (which I found myself requesting from the library as soon as I pressed stop on the film). Although it doesn't take away from the beautiful craftsmanship of the movie, which features thoughtful interviews with subjects ranging from Hawkins and Dylan to Scorsese and Springsteen, rare performance videos, and gorgeous, candid, often unreleased archival photos (mostly shot by their first and most vital photographer Elliott Landy), its scope is largely limited to Robertson as well as his contemplative wife Dominique.

With the revelation that Garth Hudson was interviewed for the doc but "for reasons that are difficult to discuss," Roher explains he couldn't use the footage in the final cut, the film's production notes offer more questions than answers about its overall construct. An exciting discovery as a Band fan nonetheless, I'm really hoping that Hudson's scenes will be included as Blu-ray bonus material, along with a tie-in book featuring all seven hundred pages of interview transcripts Roher compiled, since only sixty were used in the one hundred and two minute film. (I mean, talk about a testimony right there!)

Wisely subtitling the documentary Robbie Robertson and The Band to acknowledge its Robertson-centric perspective, at the start of the movie produced not only by Scorsese but also Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, Robertson seems as wistful as he is resigned. Playing in The Band was "a beautiful thing," Robertson acknowledges, before following it up with "so beautiful it went up in flames," as he ponders their inevitable, tragic end.

And while it would've benefited from additional points-of-view, especially as their relationships grew more tempestuous due to alcohol and substance abuse — resulting in car wrecks, tour drama, and loss of creativity — Robertson is such a charismatic and articulate interviewee that Roher should consider making a follow-up film devoted to his post-Band career as a solo artist, film composer, and music producer. Including a fascinating anecdote by Springsteen about the first time he heard Music from Big Pink (and had what sounds like his own big bang experience with the record) as well as a thrilling oral history from Robertson on the origins of their beloved hit "The Weight," this substantive film delivers the goods.

Instantly reminding me of Ernesto Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries description that, rather than "a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic," it tells the tale of "lives running parallel for a time with similar hopes and convergent dreams," the moral of Roher's film is one of perseverance, passion, as well as loyalty, and brotherhood indeed.

Having played together over a sixteen year period where, even at the toughest of times, music was the glue holding them together, Once Were Brothers puts us right there — not only onstage with The Band but offstage through Robertson's eyes  — where, no matter what happened, they kept right on playing, until they finally had to stop.

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