Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The BandReviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 02/27/20 15:58:37
(Worth A Look)
One could argue that singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson —one of the driving forces behind the groundbreaking Americana outfit The Bandâ— has been trying to set the record straight about his life and his role in the group’s rise and short-lived fall since the release of his self-titled solo debut album in 1986. And that, in the aftermath of old friend turned nemesis Levon Helm’s 1993 autobiography "This Wheel’s On Fire” and 2013 documentary “Ain’t in It for My Health” (released a year after his death from throat cancer), he has been biding his time to respond to Helm’s vitriolic charges against him. And, boy, did Robertson come out swinging! First came his 2016 autobiography “Testimony.” Then “Once Were Brothers,” a song about war and the men who fight them that stands as a metaphor for what Robertson and The Band’s four other musicians went through followed by the release last year of an even more personal album “Sinematic.” And, finally, there’s the documentary that borrows its title from the aforementioned song: “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” Talk about truth in advertising. This is the story of The Band told from his perspective. Yes, Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher brings in other voices into the mix to provide context. But this is Robertson’s story through and through.And what a magnificent raconteur Robertson turns out to be. You could picture yourself sitting around a campfire, across from him, as he plucks a couple of chords on his guitar while rambling on and on. He goes over every significant event in his life with verve, candor, a sense of amusement and even disbelief and also pain, sorrow and regret. Whether it’s growing up at the Six Nations of the Grand River reservation in Ontario, Canada, his discovering rock and roll and picking up a guitar for the first time, joining Arkansas expatriate Ronnie Hawkins’ band and writing his first song when he was 16, meeting Levon Helm after impulsively jumping on a train from Toronto to Arkansas or discovering that his real father was a Hebrew gangster, Robertson treats his early life as a joyful, magical picaresque, the opening chapter of a bildungsroman.
When Hawkins gave Robertson and drummer Helms the opportunity to build a band for him, he couldn’t have imagined that these musicians would eventually break out on their own and build their own legend. A legend that began right when, after a brief tour as Levon and the Hawks, blues singer and songwriter John Hammond recommended Helms, Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson to Bob Dylan just as he was ready to go electric. It was both an exciting and baffling career-making decision for them: they could all feel they were at the cusp of something new, a revolution even, as they were being booed off-stage by Dylan’s hardcore followers who felt betrayed by the singer-songwriter’s unrepentant embrace of rock music. For Robertson, it was a wild ride; for Helms, a frustrating experience that led him to temporarily quitting the band.
The now quartet moved to Woodstock, New York to record with Dylan his legendary Basement Tapes and, once Helms rejoined the group, their debut album as The Band, “Music from Big Pink” (1968). To hear Robertson tell it, Woodstock provided them with the ideal setting to set their creativity loose. You do get the sense, from his testimony and that of friends, producers and other musicians interviewed in the film, that they were living a utopia, one where they could write and play music whenever they felt like it (as you wonder how the hell they managed to pay the bills, buy groceries and booze). In its embrace of American roots music, “Music from the Big Pink” was, according to Bruce Springsteen, the antithesis to the psychedelic music that seemed to dominate the era. Here we have a group of Canadian (and the one American) musicians, exploring and redefining American music, celebrating its heritage and, by their second album, where they came from as well as their families in response to the 60s anti establishment vibe.
That didn’t stop some of the members of The Band from falling prey to the excesses of the era. Alcohol and heroin usage threatened to derail the group. In fact, it’s a miracle that Manuel, Danko and Helms survived the multiple car crashes they were involved in as a result of their addictions (one of these led to the cancellation of The Band’s first tour). “Something got broken…was too hard to put it together again,” laments Robertson who, by this time, was raising three children with his wife, the French-Canadian journalist Dominique Bourgeois. A move to Malibu, California (encouraged by record producer David Geffen who wanted to use Robertson to get to Dylan) didn’t help and by the time they started work on their third album, Robertson was writing most of the songs in collaboration with Hudson, their utopian collective ideals completely abandoned.
“Once Were Brothers” ends with their final concert together, held on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and immortalized by Martin Scorsese in “The Last Waltz,” one of the best concert documentaries of all time alongside Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense.” The Band was supposed to take a sabbatical after this star-studded event. Left unmentioned by the documentary is that they did reunite in the mid-80s but without Robertson. No mention is made either of the demons that haunted Robertson which led to his brief separation from Dominique (although he does talk about his visit to the hospital where Helm lied unconscious as the cancer rapidly ate his body away). Hudson was interviewed for the documentary but for some reason none of his material was used.Manuel (who committed suicide in 1986), Danko and Helms may no longer be around to rebut Robertson, even though Roher uses past interviews with all three to fill the gaps. And he has close acquaintances like Dominique, house photographer Elliott Landy and Hawkins corroborate and even expand on Robertson’s remembrances (Hawkins is such a colorful character that he deserves an entire documentary of his own). Given The Band’s dramatic story arc, it is easy to overlook their music. And such sweet music they made as the clips Roher carefully curated from “The Last Waltz” and the footage and photos he found of their basement, studio sessions and concerts can attest. Songs that were as literary (Scorsese compares them to 19th century literature) as well as earthy. “Once Were Brothers” ends on a high note as it revisits Helm’s powerful performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from “The Last Waltz.” They were indeed a band of brothers, one that, like in any good family, fell victim to sibling rivalry.
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