Robbie Robertson’s plaintive “Once Were Brothers,” from his Sinematic album, shares its title with Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, a documentary about Robertson’s life and often wild times with the group that made him famous.
The film opens in New York and L.A. on February 21 and nationally on February 28.
“I didn’t write the song for the movie and the movie wasn’t being made around the song,” Robertson told Rolling Stone last summer. “They just drifted together at a certain point and it felt right. I’m talking about the brotherhood with the group.”
But when it came time to make a video for the track, Robertson and director Kevin Kerslake decided not to go the movie trailer route. “We wanted something atmospheric, a tone poem,” Kerslake says. “We wanted to create a trance-like experience.” Robertson himself says he wanted to go in “a different direction.”
The song’s theme of brotherly bonds and struggles initially spoke to the two men in contrasting ways: Robertson saw it as a portrait of his connection with the members of the Band, three of whom have passed away, while the concept reminded Kerslake of a story he’d once read about the Civil War.
As a result, Kerslake’s vision for the video involved footage that would have looked over a century old, with a few characters dressed as Union and Confederate forces. “I said to Robbie, ‘Let’s put more Civil War in there,’ and he loved it,” Kerslake says with a laugh. “It was a very funny process. Sometimes great creations can come out of misunderstandings.”
Robertson admits that the song, which references “the North and the South,” shifts back and forth in time. “There’s such a blend after a while,” Robertson says. “I don’t want to say, ‘Now I’m talking about this,’ and ‘Now I’m talking about that.’ It should all sweep over you.”
To achieve the proper 19thcentury effect, Kerslake unearthed a Zoopraxiscope, a late 19thcentury device that inserts still photos into a carousel and re-shoots them for the desire stop-motion effect. Kerslake — whose videos for Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and Filter, among many others, helped define the look of Nineties indie and alt-rock — used a similar effect in parts of STP’s “Interstate Love Song” video.
For this clip’s circus performers, he recruited former Cirque De Soleil acts and wove in those clips with equally grainy, evocative footage of Robertson filmed at his studio in Califoria. For a poignant touch, Robertson is seen holding the same guitar he played in The Last Waltz. “He gave me the option of using it, and we did it for the nostalgia,” Kerslake says, who marveled at its heft. “It was super heavy.”