For Robbie Robertson, it all begins with a guitar. A ’56 Fender Stratocaster, the one he wrote his first two commercial songs with: “Hey Boba Lou” and “Someone Like You.” Those were for Ronnie Hawkins, an early rock ‘n’ roll bandleader from Arkansas with a young drummer by the name of Levon Helm. Robertson and Helm would become close friends and bandmates, though they would eventually bitter. Where does it all begin for Helm? No idea. Same for Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, question marks all. There’s only one name in this documentary’s title; history is written by those left standing.
Initially slated for theatrical distribution, now available via the virtual theater, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is the latest rock documentary to mine the past and shed light on certain details. Fans of The Band might quibble over how much light, and from where that light comes from. But, with music this good, you just need to get out of the way.
And get out of the way director Daniel Rohr does. He plants Robertson smack dab in the middle of the frame and lets him go, recounting story after story, from boyhood on up to 2012.
Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1943, Robertson first found the inspirational light of music during family retreats to the Six Nation Reserve: A North American reservation will all six Iroquois nations living together. At sundown, instruments were broken out, and singing commenced. For a young boy, the music and the spirit of camaraderie were intoxicating. You can still hear that spirit in a lot of the songs Robertson wrote for The Band: The solos are minimal, and the blending of mechanical instruments with human voices is harmonious. Take “The Weight,” arguably their best-known song, recognizable for the three-part harmony of Danko, Helm, and Manuel. Three of the best in the business, by Bruce Springsteen’s estimation, and when they played together, “They were loaded for bear.”
Danko, Helm, Manuel, they’re all dead now. Only Robertson and Hudson remain, and, here, Hudson ain’t talking. Robertson is, so, Rohr employs a chorus to back Robertson up: Springsteen, Hawkins, record mogul David Geffen, friend and longtime collaborator, Martin Scorsese, even Peter Gabriel drops a line in. Other interviews, from Helm, Bob Dylan, and George Harrison, are culled from previous documentaries.
Like similar music docs, Once Were Brothers relies heavily on archival footage, familiar photographs, and outtakes from photography shoots. And for a band as well known as The Band, this is well-mined material. Yet, the beauty of Rohr’s documentary is how engagingly he arranges it. He manages to make a linear story feel circular, folk even. At one point, Springsteen recalls hearing The Band’s debut album, Music From Big Pink, at a late-night café—the ideal time and the ideal setting for such a record. You never heard them before and, yet, they sounded like they’ve always been there, Springsteen muses. An echo of Llewyn Davis’ observation: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
The Band wasn’t exactly folk, and they weren’t exactly rock ‘n’ roll—though they could knock it out when they need to. And Rohr features their two best examples, first as Dylan’s backup for his spectacular flop of an electric tour in England circa 1966; second as their final performance together on stage in 1976. That show was at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco—the same stage they first played live together as The Band—on Thanksgiving Day. You ought to film it, Robertson quipped to Scorsese. At worse, it’ll be preserved in the Library of Congress.
In 2019, The Last Waltz was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. It remains one of the greatest, if not the great, rock concert films of all time. It was the last time all five—Danko, Helm, Hudson, Manuel, and Robertson—were in perfect synch. Not so much for what came next. To borrow a line from Orson Welles: It’s easy to have a happy ending; you just have to know when to stop.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
Directed by Daniel Rohr
Based on Robbie Robertson’s memoir, Testimony
Produced by Lana Belle Mauro
Starring: Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, David Geffen
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 100 minutes, Streaming