An account of Robbie Robertson’s life and career, and of The Band, one of the great rock groups of its time.
Robbie Robertson has had a long career, having been a professional musician and songwriter since his teens. Although he has put out solo albums and worked on film scores – often for Martin Scorsese, who is also one of the executive producers of this film and features as an interviewee – there’s no escaping the fact that ultimately he will be known as one of the five men who made up The Band, performing as guitarist and principal songwriter. Daniel Roher’s documentary recognises this, and while it does cover Robertson’s early life and career before The Band came into being, it stops at its breakup.
The Band – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robertson – were simply one of the great and most influential groups of the 1960s. Although they were young men in their twenties, there’s a sense that somehow they’d always been there. While they drew heavily on American traditions in their music, they were in fact – with the exception of Levon Helm – Canadians. On their own, and in collaboration with Bob Dylan, they influenced the country-rock of The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and others as the psychedelic era came to an end. Overseas, Eric Clapton and George Harrison were particular admirers, and both are interviewed here, the latter by means of archive footage. They also had, as Bruce Springsteen says here, three of the great white rock vocalists of the time: Danko, Helm and Manuel.
Once Were Brothers tells its story chronologically, with new interviews and plenty of archive footage, including some from home movies. Robertson was born (as Jaime Royal Robertson) in Toronto in 1943 and was playing in bands from the age of 13, and within two years he met Ronnie Hawkins, who led a band called The Hawks. Hearing that Hawkins was looking for songs for his next album, Robertson shut himself away until he had written two he could submit – and they were accepted and recorded. Hawkins invited Robertson to try out as a member of The Hawks, which meant relocating from Toronto to Arkansas. Levon Helm was already the Hawks’s drummer and he soon became close friends with Robertson.
As other members of the band left, they were replaced by musicians who happened to be Canadians, and soon the five members of The Band were in place. As The Band, they backed Bob Dylan on tour and also worked with him, most notably on the 1967 sessions that eventually became The Basement Tapes ablum released by Dylan 8 years later. The Band’s own albums began with Music from Big Pink in 1967 and The Band in 1969.
Meanwhile, Robertson met his wife Dominique (a French-Canadian, interviewed here) in Paris. However, problems were beginning to show themselves in The Band, with at first alcohol, and then hard drugs having an effect. In 1974, they reunited with Dylan for the tour captured on the live album Before the Flood, before eventually calling it a day in 1976, and Scorsese’s film of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, remains one of the great rock documentaries. The title of this film sums it up: the strong sense of brotherhood enjoyed by The Band, and regrets about the different ways it came to an end. Eric Clapton says that he envied them because he was a musician who didn’t remain in bands for long, often choosing to move onto the next thing.
The end credits state that Once Were Brothers is partly based on Robertson’s memoir of 2011, Testimony, but even before you get that far, there is a sense this documentary is very much an authorised version. Danko, Helm and Manuel are no longer alive, though all three are represented by archive interviews, as is Hudson, who is still with us but otherwise doesn’t participate.
That said, the film does cover the dispute that as principal songwriter, Robertson earns all or most of the songwriting royalties. By the third album, Stage Fright, Robertson was writing or co-writing all of the songs. Helm especially felt that the credits should have been shared more equitably, though that would have been for song arrangments rather than the lyrics. That led to an estrangement between Helm and Robertson, though Robertson visited Helm when he was close to death from cancer. When Robertson talks about this, and Manuel’s decline and eventual suicide, the film becomes genuinely moving. Within its limitations, Once Were Brothers is a fine testimony, so watch this, play the albums and take time to enjoy The Last Waltz again.
Once Were Brothers is a Blu-ray and DVD release from Dazzler Media. A copy of the former, encoded for Region B only, was received for review. As a documentary, the film has been exempted from BBFC certification. It’s unlikely that children will be interested in this film, but parents should be aware of a few uses of strong language and references to drug and alcohol abuse.
The Blu-ray is in a ratio of 1.78:1. The film is a mixture of new interviews, and scenes showing Robertson in his recording studio, shot in HD, with archive material, some of it generated on video and some on film at various gauges. An odd quirk is that some of the footage, which looks like it was shot on 8mm, is presented with sprocket holes visible at screen left. Inevitably the archive material is less hi-res than the new footage, and the film extracts often softer and grainier, but there’s no doubt this is how it is intended to look.
The soundtrack is available in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 (playing in surround). As this is a film made up of talking-heads interviews and archive material mostly with mono soundtracks, there’s not much call for an elaborate sound mix. The surrounds are mostly used for music, with not much else apart from the extracts from The Last Waltz, a film originally released in Dolby Stereo. The LPCM track is slightly louder, but otherwise there’s no difference between the two to speak of. There are subtitles available for the hard-of-hearing which usefully identify the tracks played during the film. There are no extras included with this release.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digitally right now.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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