Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A modest tribute to The Band

Daniel Roher’s documentary film “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band” looks over the rather brief history of The Band, which was founded by Robbie Robertson and his four fellow musicians in 1968. Although its five members eventually came to part ways in 1977, their nine years of collaboration led to a number of influential works such as “The Weight”, and the documentary gives us a close look into their short but significant career peak mainly via the viewpoint of Robertson, who is incidentally the only living member besides Garth Hudson at this point.

At the beginning, the documentary examines Robertson’s early years via his own words and a bunch of archival photographs. Born on July 5th, 1943 in Toronto, Canada, Robertson was influenced a lot by his mother who often enjoyed music, and it did not take much time for him to show more interest and talent in music as he entered adolescence in the late 1950s. Around that time, rock and roll became a lot more prominent in US thanks to various popular musicians ranging from Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley, and Robertson, who already quit school for focusing more on music despite his mother’s concern, was certainly eager to be as good and popular as these iconic musicians someday.

A few years later, there came a chance Robertson could not possibly miss. A popular American musician named Ronnie Hawkins came to Toronto for a concert to be held there, and Hawkins and his band impressed Robertson enough to make him want to join Hawkins’ band. Once he noticed the considerable potential inside young Robertson, Hawkins let Robertson join his band, and Robertson found himself writing several songs to be performed by Hawkins and his band shortly after coming to US along with them.

Robertson was particularly close to one of the band members, and his name was Levon Helm. As playing a lot together, Robertson and Helm became more inseparable to each other as fellow musicians, and it did not take much time for them to consider making a band for themselves. As they continued to play more along with three other musicians Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson under Hawkins during next several years, the possibility of making a new band together looked more possible to all of them, and then they got an opportunity to test their potential when they were recommended to accompany Bob Dylan in his notorious concert tour during 1965-66.

As some of you know well, Dylan’s concert tour during 1965-66 was deemed to be pretty disastrous during that time. While he was quite popular for many folk songs willingly embraced by millions of young people out there, Dylan boldly decided to expand his musical range into rock and roll, and that move is regarded as a major turning point in his career at present, but it actually received lots of negative reactions throughout concerts. Despite getting lots of boos from his audiences every time, Dylan stuck to his guns anyway, and Robertson and his fellow musicians constantly stood by Dylan as fully demonstrating their skill and confidence on the stage.

After this valuable experience, Robertson and his fellow musicians became more confident than before, and they fortunately happened to meet someone to help them. Albert Grossman, who was Dylan’s longtime manager, suggested that they should spend some time in Woodstock, New York for further honing their talent, and they followed Grossman’s advice without any hesitation. As creating and playing more music together at a big pink house somewhere in Woodstock, they officially formed a band in the end, and they simply named it, yes, “The Band” after considering several other names.

When their iconic album “Music From Big Pink” came out in August 1968, their band became much more famous and successful than before, and Robertson and his fellow band members could not help but swept by their big success even while devoting themselves to their music as before. Although Robertson managed to stick to his stable family life, the other band members often drew themselves into drug and alcohol, and that led to several serious incidents which caused more strains inside the band. According to Robertson, he tried as much as he could for getting things under control, but he and his band members got more estranged from each other as time went by, and Helm, who was supposed to be his best friend in the bunch, became particularly resentful about not getting paid enough compared to Robertson,

The Band was inevitably disbanded in 1977, but Robertson and his band members could get a sort of last hurrah via their final attempt of unity in November 1976. Aptly called “The Last Waltz”, their last concert is vividly captured in the 1978 concert film of the same name directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, who incidentally serves as one of the executive producers of the documentary. The documentary only shows a few moments from that concert film, but it is apparent to us that this concert was quite bittersweet for Robertson and his band members, and then we become more aware of the absence of his band members in the documentary, who could provide some different viewpoints besides Robertson’s.

Overall, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” may feel inherently biased as mostly siding with Robertson, but it still works as a modest tribute to The Band. As a guy who knew The Band only via “The Last Waltz”, I found it fairly informative and engaging, and I guess you will enjoy it more than me if you are familiar with The Band.

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