ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND

 

A very accurate and poignant title for a documentary about one of the pillars of modern music. Martin Scorsese brings his deep seated fascination of music to the story of his long-time music compadre Robbie Robertson. The pair have collaborated on myriad films, Scorsese behind the camera and Robertson helping with musical selections.

Introductory commentary by Springsteen and Clapton reaffirm The Band’s crucial role in modern American music. The irony, of course, is that everyone in The Band but for drummer Levon Helm grew up north of the border.

Ronnie Hawkins states that when he invited Robertson to join his band The Hawks, Robertson was told he shouldn’t worry about being paid but he’d get “more pussy than Frank Sinatra, and he did.”

Robertson and Helm were the backbone of The Hawks, and soon enlisted Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and eventually Garth Hudson.

Their intense schedule of practice, gigs and partying were heady for the five teens backing Hawkins.

But it was a trip to NYC and an introduction to Bob Dylan that changed everything.

The proficiency of Danko, Hudson, Manuel, Helm and Robertson was the perfect foil for Dylan’s desire to eschew his acoustic folk roots. “It turns out the only person who thought it was a good idea was Dylan,” Robertson asserts. “We’d set up our equipment, we’d play, people would boo and we’d do it all over again at the next show. It was a strange way to make money.”

Helm “felt beat up” from the experience, and wanted out. He headed south to work on a rig in the Gulf or Mexico.

By the time Dylan took the show to England, nothing changed. The crowds were equally obstreperous. George Harrison reaffirms the situation in a poignant clip, as does Dylan: “they were the gallant knights standing behind me.”

Evidence that the film’s title does focus on Robertson is the digression of meeting his future wife journalist Dominique in Paris, and family baby pictures. But this sets the stage for the rift that would eventually appear within The Band.

Soon the film turns to the seminal time spent in Woodstock, woodshedding in the big pink house. Dylan sticks his head in, and for six months the musicians practice and record what would become the most famous of bootleg recordings: “The Basement Tapes.”

But a crucial element is missing, and Helm is summoned back from the Gulf of Mexico into a great scenario, far more bucolic than the oil rig.

The classic image: The Band, L to R_ Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson (photo by Elliott Landy)

The footage, both stills and video, are well chosen throughout the film. Director Daniel Roher keeps a steady tone throughout the film, preventing it from tipping into a hagiography. Executive producers Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard provide the appropriate gravitas. (The latter two had a hand in the superb Eight Days a Week, documenting The Beatles’ live chops). The music in Once Were Brothers is uniformly excellent, of course, including Robertson’s recent “I Hear You Paint Houses,” the name of the book on which Scorsese based his opus The Irishman. The vast majority of the voiceover is from Robertson, with not enough voices from the other four.

Robertson’s story of writing “The Weight” is touching, and it is the first song in the film allowed to play in full. Dylan, Clapton and Springsteen weigh in about the seminal importance of the 1968 album. Taj Mahal refers to Music From Big Pink as important as The Beatles. The seemingly incongruous Peter Gabriel speaks about the wisdom of a country setting to record (he famously built Real World Studios in the gentle hills outside Bath after departing Genesis). Van Morrison was sleeping on Peter Wolf’s couch in Boston (“Brown Eyed Girl” was top of the charts but Morrison was broke) when Morrison heard about what was happening in Woodstock, and moves nearby. Clapton, at the height of his psychedelic prowess in Cream, gets up his nerve to travel to Woodstock to ask about joining The Band.

Drinks, drugs and car accidents in the hills around Woodstock nearly derail the band. Robertson’s family life was a sharp contrast to the lifestyle of the single men in the band. The film portrays Robertson as the workman of the group. By their third album, his songwriting predominated. He and Hudson were the primary musical catalysts; the other three were dipping too far into heroin.

The angst we have heard from the other bandmembers over the decades about Robertson’s predominance is given a response here. He is portrayed as up daily, writing songs and getting down to business.

Eventually Robertson’s meeting with David (“Woodstock is a shithole”) Geffen resulted in the latter encouraging a move to Malibu. Geffen was the trigger for the Dylan / Band reunion in 1974, which was far better received than their first tour together in 1966.

I saw The Band open for a raving drunk Clapton in Buffalo in July 1974, and the whole evening was indeed ragged.

Drugs further decimated The Band, with Robertson and Hudson keeping the torch aflame.

Fortunately, one final hurrah captured the legacy. The Last Waltz in 1976 was an elegiac finish to a stunning career.

Sadly, Helm, Manuel and Danko departed this mortal coil way before their time. Helm was most vocal in his last years about his anger at Robertson, for not acknowledging financially the singing drummer’s role.

Robertson tries to make amends at the end of Helm’s life, and again at the end of this fine film.

Robbie Robertson (photo by Don Dixon)

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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