It’s hinted at right in the title that this documentary is more about guitarist, composer and frontman Robbie Robertson than it is about his 1960s/’70s group The Band. And that’s how the film plays out. But that’s also OK, because Robertson was The Band’s central creative figure throughout their decade and a half run.
Their first three albums - “Music from Big Pink,” “The Band,” and “Stage Fright” - were staples of rock-country-folk-pop collections, and a few Band songs - “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove old Dixie Down,” “The Shape I’m in” - can still be heard on classic rock stations. But only two of them charted: “Up on Cripple Creek” in 1969 and “Don’t Do It” in 1972.
The film opens long after they played their last gig with all five original members, which happened in 1976 and was captured in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz.” We get a contemporary chat with Robertson, confessing that he’s never had an actual creative musical process, that “you just sit down and see what happens.” He also casually mentions that the group he spearheaded “went up in flames” and that “I think about those guys all the time.”
The picture that’s eventually painted here is made up of archival photos and performance footage, old interviews with late members of the group - Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel are gone - and more recent interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Scorsese and others.
There’s a lot of personal history told by Robertson, ranging from his scattered upbringing in Canada to his discovery of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis, and of him getting a guitar at 13 and soon realizing what he wanted to do with it and his life. The pop cultural side of things comes from those other voices: Springsteen talks like a fanboy while we see rehearsal footage of “Up on Cripple Creek,” Clapton gushes about being in awe of the group’s brotherhood, Scorsese expounds upon their music’s imagery.
As a teenager, working away at his guitar craft and beginning to write songs, Robertson became acquainted with the Arkansas rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins, who would regularly play in Toronto. Robertson eventually became friends with Hawkins’ drummer Levon Helm, wrote a couple of songs at age 15 that Hawkins recorded, and was soon invited to join his band The Hawks. After many personnel changes that turned the Southern lineup of players to a Canadian one, and the departure of Hawkins, the group eventually morphed into Levon and the Hawks, and then The Band.
As told by Robertson and a constantly growing parade of other faces and voices - although it’s Robertson front and center for the lion’s share of the film - things got rolling. Bob Dylan came onto the scene and hired them to be his electric back-up band, there was a move to “an ugly pink house” in Woodstock, New York, complete with a basement recording studio, and Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman put them on a salary to create music.
Robertson tells a great story of how “The Weight,” the song that first put them on the map, came into existence, and the resulting first album is described as having an “easygoing pop-country vibe” - and is the precursor to what’s now called Americana. In short order, the film chronicles their “overnight” success after much hard work, the camaraderie between the members, and the eventual alcohol- and drug-abuse that started to fracture the tight relationships. It turns into a study of the ups and downs that was the group’s voyage, somehow culminating in triumph at that final concert.
But the film has a kind of downbeat ending. Robertson recalls that the plan after that concert was to come back together and make more music, “but everybody just forgot to come back.” The documentary’s writer-director Daniel Roher also chooses to skirt over the deaths of three of the five members, leaving us, if we choose, to find out what happened to them via Google. That may be a misstep, but Roher has also filled the film with some great music, and that music lives on.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”
Written and directed by Daniel Roher
With Robbie Robertson, The Band, and lots of talking heads