Note this documentary’s subtitle: Robbie Robertson and the Band. The name of this portrait of the legendary rock group — Once Were Brothers — comes from a cut off a 2019 Robertson solo album; the phrase exemplifies, in the singer-songwriter’s words, how he felt about the four other men who stood beside him on hundreds of stages, in dozens of studios and within one extremely famous pink house’s basement. It’s the second part, however, that’s more revealing…especially that telltale “and.” Director Daniel Roher starts by diving into Robertson’s personal musical journey before turning the film’s attention to the former Ronnie Hawkins/Bob Dylan backing band-turned-Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, expanding the spotlight to encompass the quintet as a whole. But make no mistake: This is really one man’s look back in anger, sorrow, joy and sentimentality. “Robbie Robertson on the Band” would be a more accurate description.
The first half hour or so gives us Robertson recounting his childhood visits to the Six Nations of the Grand River Reservation, where the kid from Mohawk and Cayuga descent first discovered the power of music as a communal thing. He talks about hitting adolescence just as rock & roll hits the airwaves (cue montage of album covers) and making his name as a young guitarist. Rockabilly madman Ronnie Hawkins enters the picture; so does a “drummer who seemed to glow in the dark” named Levon Helm. The Southern members of the Hawks are slowly replaced by Canadian recruits, save Helm, to become “the best white R&B band of their time.”
There are also tales of Hebrew gangsters, early songwriting triumphs, Robert Zimmerman’s alter ego going electric, tours characterized by boredom and boos, a gorgeous Montreal journalist in Paris who’ll become Mrs. Robertson, and lots more. It’s frankly a gas, like listening to a hip grand-uncle tell old war stories, assuming your septuagenarian relative also changed the course of rock history six or seven times.
By the time we get to Woodstock and the beginning of what will become the Band proper, Roher and company have already set the stage for something closer to an ensemble piece. An army of famous talking heads from Springsteen to Scorsese to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner have already sung their praises. Now we get to hear the group sing their way through the one-two punch of Music From Big Pink and The Band, courtesy of some rare recording clips and a snippet from their infamous Winterland debut. (Robertson was so nervous for that gig he required the aid of a hypnotist. That anecdote is in here, with snapshots, too.) You wish there was more vintage performance footage, given how the concert album Rock of Ages proves that circa ’71, these guys were a beast live. The first year and a half was wonderful, Robertson says. Alas, all rock-hippie utopias must come to an end. Not even a move to sunny California can save a band in Seventies’ substance-abuse free fall.
And here’s where things start to get tricky regarding Once Were Brothers‘ perspective on what happened next. The Last Waltz itself gets the royal treatment, as well it should, but the years leading up to that all-star goodbye are described in brief as “it was a beautiful thing…it went up in flames.” Who lit the matches, however, is eventually boiled down to everybody but Robertson. Drink and drugs were always prevalent, and then heroin enters the picture and it all goes to shit. “I had a vision,” Robertson says, and the resentment in how he felt he was forced to carry the weight from Stage Fright to the Fillmore West’s stage is still palpable. He wanted to stop touring. But also: “Robbie kept moving, and not everybody could follow.”
“The idea was, [we’d] put that away,” the singer says, “we’d take care of each other, and really come back together again to make music…everybody just forgot to come back.” Not to split hairs, but: the four others played on Rick Danko’s 1977 solo album (Robertson plays on a track as well), later regrouped, toured and, after Richard Manuel tragically took his own life in 1986, recorded three more albums without Robertson. His story with the Band ends after Waltz, however, hence the story of the Band ends as well in his opinion. Fair enough. A coda, in which Robertson details saying farewell to an unconscious Helm on his death bed, is touching, though it may also cause some Band fans — the ones aware of just how complicated, thorny and unresolved the twosome’s longtime feud was — to cry tears of rage.
If you’ve read Robertson’s wonderful memoir Testimony, you’re already familiar with that story. Which, given the “inspired by” credit it gets at the end, suggests it’s better to think Once Were Brothers as an adaptation of that book rather than a straight-up rock doc about the Band per se. Manuel, Helm and Danko are all gone. Garth Hudson, the film says, still lives in Woodstock with his wife; whether he was approached or consulted for the project, it doesn’t say. In the end, we have someone who was both the driving force and one-fifth of the group speaking for the whole. His bona fides as a legend are assured; you’re reminded, watching this trip through some key chapters of a musician’s life, what a huge part he played in the art form. And you’re also reminded that history is always written, revised and rewritten by the victors.