Review: ‘Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band’ documents a dream gone up in smoke
It’s Bruce Springsteen who says it best: “It was like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there forever and ever.”
Springsteen is talking about the Band, a dazzling group that for a brief period in the late 1960s used a combination of rock, country and blues to jump start the Americana sound and set the popular music world on its ear. Then, seemingly just as suddenly, they were gone.
The story of the rise and disintegration of the Band turns out to be as compelling as its spectacular music, and it’s good to have the tale told and the group’s formidable sounds heard one more time, in the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” directed by Daniel Roher.
As the title indicates, this is the group’s story from the point of view of Robertson, its most prolific songwriter and the man whose post-Band career has been the most noteworthy, and while that situation is inevitable, it’s not quite ideal.
Inevitable because not only is Robertson the band member most comfortable with what Joni Mitchell called “the star maker machinery behind the popular song,” but three of his band mates (Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel) have died, and the fourth, Garth Hudson, is very much not comfortable in the public eye.
But though he is in effect the last man standing, Robertson and his comrades did not see eye to eye toward the end, and though “Brothers” acknowledges that situation, giving him pride of place invariably unbalances the film.
Add to that the not surprising deference the 25-year-old director shows to a 76-year-old superstar with a willingness to self-mythologize, and regretting that the other Band members could not be seen and heard more than they are in archival interview clips is unavoidable.`
But it is a measure of the singularity of the Band’s story, and the way their music remains such a tonic to experience, that “Brothers” still demands to be seen.
Just watching and listening to the group tearing through their classic “Up on Cripple Creek” near the documentary’s opening, alive with the pleasure of making great music with one another, is enough to joyously lift you out of your seat.
Because “Once Were Brothers” also functions as a Robertson biography, we begin with tales of his Toronto background as the child of a mother born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and a Jewish gambler who died before he was born.
Rock music captivated Robertson, and when he was 15 his band opened in Toronto for the wild and crazy rockabilly group Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks.
At age 16, he took a train by himself to Fayetteville, Ark., and joined the group, becoming fast friends with the group’s drummer and fellow teen, Levon Helm.
Under their influence, Hawkins hired three other Canadian youths — Danko, Hudson and Manuel — and the group was soon playing in bars they were too young to patronize.
More than that, as Hawkins, at age 85 one of the film’s most engaging interviews, avows, playing together the five Hawks “shot past me musically like a bolt of lightning.”
The group took a leap forward in visibility when it came to the attention of Bob Dylan and became the band that backed him and faced hostile crowds on the infamous Going Electric tours, leading Dylan, interviewed briefly here, to call them “gallant knights standing behind me.”
When Dylan ended up moving to Woodstock, the group followed and even persuaded Helm, who’d left during the Dylan tour, to join them in a brightly painted house that became iconic when the group, having decided to call itself the Band, released “Music From Big Pink” in 1968.
What happened next, involving great musical success, drinking, serious car crashes and the inevitable hard drug use, is so complex and so frenetic you almost wish “Brothers” had the length of a limited series to deal with it all.
At a certain point Robertson, alone among the group to have married and started a family (former wife Dominique is spoken to) began to get bigger ideas. He went out to Los Angeles, took meetings with David Geffen, moved to Malibu (as did Dylan and other Band members) and became friendly with Martin Scorsese.
“The Last Waltz,” the concert and Scorsese film commemorating the official end of the Band in its original incarnation, was apparently Robertson’s idea, and the rest of the gang did not necessarily love it.
Soon to come were disputes, referred to briefly in the film, over who should be getting songwriting credit and the royalties that went with it, and it’s sad to watch the wheels falling off this once glorious enterprise. As Robertson himself puts it, “it was such a beautiful thing, and it went up in flames.”
'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band'
Rated: R, for some language and drug references
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 21, Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles
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