Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Canada 2019)

Japanese film poster

Rock music documentaries must be one of the most narrativised forms of documentary, featuring familiar genre elements such as the early lives of key figures, the founding moments of a career, live concert footage, witness testimonies and so on. Their appeal is primarily to fans of the artists concerned who are looking for both the familiar, the lure of nostalgia, and surprises, a filling of gaps in the history. For the general audience there is perhaps not so much difference between the ‘bio-doc’ and the fictionalised biopic. We might want to share the elation of success, to pass judgement on the excess of lifestyles and respond to the despair of decline or the triumph of survival beyond the short lifespan of most rock groups. The more outrageous the characters, the more the story is going to appeal to that wider audience. But, of course, the music has to be good too.

A Woodstock period photo. The Band appear as 19th century men. From left: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson

What should we make then of this conventional rock documentary about The Band and its central creative force? Once Were Brothers opened the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and toured other festivals before the pandemic curtailed cinema releases beyond Canada and the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand. It made nearly $500,000 worldwide at the box office. In the UK, the film has been broadcast on BBC4 and is currently available on iPlayer. There is also a rather expensive DVD. When the Guardian ran an interview with Robbie Robertson in October 2019 it generated comments from fans commenting on a film many hadn’t yet seen. If you aren’t a fan you need to be aware that the story of The Band covers not much more than the 15 years between 1961 and 1976. The five band members were all very talented musicians and performers but Robertson stood out as the lead writer and the most organised (and least distracted). The result was that after the band’s final concert, the ‘Last Waltz’ filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976 and released as a triple LP and a cinema film in 1978, Robertson retained rights to most of the songs written over the years of the band’s concerts and recordings. Robertson did indeed write the songs but all the members contributed to the arrangements and especially over the first two albums produced in the collective workshop atmosphere of the pink house in Woodstock. Three of the five members are now dead and Garth Hudson is a recluse. The ‘J’accuse‘ came from Levon Helm who in his memoir pointed the finger at Robertson. This documentary by the young Canadian documentarist Daniel Roher is based largely on Robertson’s 2016 memoir (Testimony: A Memoir) and he is the narrator of the film.

Robbie Robertson narrates the story

If you aren’t a fan, what can you expect from the film? The first section deals with Robertson’s childhood and his very early entry into the music business at barely 16 when he joined the Hawks, the backing band for the American rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins. This meant meeting an equally young Levon Helm, the drummer with the Hawks. But Robertson had to travel down to Arkansas from Toronto. This must have been a real challenge for a teenager with a Mohawk family on his mother’s side and a surprise on his father’s side (it was a surprise for Robertson when he found out and I didn’t know about it, despite having read a fair amount about the Band). Helm was three years older but since Hawkins also worked Canada, he would find himself travelling North. By 1961 the other members of the Hawks had all been replaced by young Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Manuel was 18 when he joined the Hawks. Danko was still 17. He came from Ukranian farming stock. Hudson was an ‘old man’ at 24 but he brought classical and jazz experience into the group. This quintet then spent four years playing in clubs and smaller venues from Arkansas through the North East US and into Ontario. Nothing of this appears in the film unfortunately, we have to rely on short statements from band members, some recorded many years ago. The band wasn’t famous but they were honing their skills and broadening their knowledge of American-Canadian music styles. By 1965 they had parted with Ronnie Hawkins and toured as Levon and the Hawks (because Helm had seniority in the band) and were about to be ‘discovered’ by Bob Dylan.

Robertson and Dylan on stage together (in 1974 on the Before the Flood tour?)

Dylan asked the Hawks to back him on tours during 1965-1966. In that transition period Dylan was playing an acoustic set and then an electric set and the Hawks played the second half of the shows. They had never played to large audiences and they were taken aback by the booing from traditional folk fans but for next three years they would become famous because of their link to Dylan. This could have become a burden for the Hawks and it’s interesting that Dylan doesn’t contribute a great deal in the film, despite the hours of recording and touring he managed with the Hawks and then The Band. The Band eventually re-united with Dylan in Woodstock where they bought a house in which they converted the basement to a ‘writer’s recording studio’. This is perhaps the heart of the film where the magic was born and which produced ‘The Basement Tapes’ (bootlegged before later official releases starting in 1975) under Dylan’s name and the first two albums by the newly named ‘The Band’, ‘Music From the Big Pink’ and the self-titled ‘The Band’. I think I enjoyed this part the most because of the photographs taken over a couple of years. Director Roher uses a technique in which he cuts rapidly between the beautiful B+W photos so that it is almost like watching an animator’s flick-book. As Robertson explains, this was the first time the five men had time together to relax and play new and old material. Here was the ‘arranging’ and the real discovery of a new form of music which combined blues and soul, country, R&B and more. Roher offers us confirmation of the standing of The Band within the fraternity of musicians. Bruce Springsteen argues that the quintet included three great lead vocalists in Manuel, Helm and Danko. Eric Clapton claims that he travelled to Woodstock hoping he could join the group and a brief clip of the great Taj Mahal sees him suggesting that if any North American band could be compared to the Beatles it would be The Band. Certainly that long history of touring or residency that both groups experienced followed by time to write, arrange and record without pressure was similar. (And can somebody produce a documentary about Taj Mahal please?) The other witnesses who appear in the film include Albert Grossman, manager of both Dylan and The Band, John Simon, The Band’s record producer and David Geffen who would later lure Robbie Robertson out to Malibu. Ronnie Hawkins still going strong provides some of the liveliest commentary and George Harrison in a more subdued testimony, gives weight to The Band’s place in any rock canon.

Levon Helm was the lead vocalist on many of the songs

The tragedy in The Band’s story was unfortunately already beginning to unfold during their time in Woodstock. Robertson had married Dominique Bourgeois, a Montrealer he met in Paris, and started a family. He was writing all the time and was more grounded and more ‘professional’ in thinking about the future and his career in music. Some of the others were drinking too much and getting stoned too often. The alcohol was dangerous and there are footages of the car crashes that threatened the group’s future. Dominique, with whom Robertson would have three children, gives an honest appraisal of what happened in Woodstock and echoes other witnesses in arguing that these five men loved each other as brothers but were affected by the drink and drugs. Later she divorced Robertson and became a counsellor specialising in addiction therapies. Fan-critics see this part of the film as allowing Robertson and his ‘supporters’ to construct a narrative that in a sense absolves him of the charges made by Levon Helm later. The narrative moves swiftly through the triumph of the first two albums and then charts the beginning of the decline when Richard Manuel was taken ill on tour. The film ends with The Last Waltz and, significantly, Levon Helm’s lead vocal on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The last section is perhaps the most controversial part of the film because Robbie Robertson completes the narration which for some fans seems like an attempt to exonerate himself from the charges against him.

Albert Grossman with Dylan

The film is visually very strong, Roher melds the photographs, archive footage and talking heads very well. He emphasises the range of still images by presenting original slides in their card frames or highlighting images on a contact sheet. Most of the excellent photos are by Elliot Landy who was presumably hired by the group to document the recording process in Woodstock. Roher similarly ‘marks’ some of the home movie footage. I’m not sure what this signifies beyond the ‘authenticity’ of the footage. The Last Waltz film was directed by Martin Scorsese and he acts as executive producer on Roher’s film and makes his witness statement contribution. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are also executive producers.

The film ends with The Last Waltz and Robertson claiming that although he was the one who decided to stop touring, mainly because of Richard Manuel’s health, all the members expected that after 1976 they would get back together. In reality Robertson started a new career creating music scores for Scorsese. Helm appeared in several films including Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and The Right Stuff (1983) and each of the five produced solo recordings. The quartet without Robertson played live together and in various combinations. ‘Once Were Brothers’ is a recent song by Robertson which makes an appearance in the final section.

An image stressing the the versatility of the players in The Band. Levon Helm the drummer also played mandolin while Richard Manuel, the piano player, could switch to drums and Garth Hudson could play sax and accordion as well as his beloved organ.

I’ve written much more than I expected I would. I am a fan of The Band and I have music from across their whole history including a couple of the solo albums. I’ve been playing a lot of it since I watched the film. They were for me the best band. I don’t want to take sides and I admire Robertson for the long career he has had in music but I want to know more, especially about Manuel, Danko and Hudson. I treasure my tracks by Levon Helm and my memories of some of his film roles. I thought I knew something about the history of The Band. I know quite a lot more now. It’s well worth watching this film. The only real downer is that apart from Dominique there are no other women who feature prominently in the film.

2 comments

  1. Geoff Lealand

    Thanks for this, Roy, I saw this doco last year, when it screened as part of the online NZIFF. It is now on Sky. I recommend listening to Jason Isbell/Drive By Truckers ‘Danko/Manuel’ . A lovely song which somehow echoes the melancholy of The Band.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks Geoff. I found the track you mention in a version listed as being by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. You’ve set me off on another ramble through my musical tastes. I have the odd Jason Isbell track and some by Drive By Truckers but hadn’t realised the Muscle Shoals/FAME connections. That goes back to some of The Band’s fusions of soul and R&B with country and rock.

      Like

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