The contribution that The Band made to the sound of Americana cannot be underestimated. Hell, they pretty much invented the damn thing, combining country and soul music in ways no one had ever quite done before. The original members of The Band (comprised of Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel) had a success that burnt brightly, but never played together again after shooting celebrated concert film The Last Waltz. This documentary, Once Were Brothers unpacks their rise to stardom, and why the original brotherhood of The Band began to fall apart.
As the title of this documentary would suggest, this is very much the story of Robbie Robertson, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, and how he came to get together with the guys who would go on to form The Band. As a result, this is very much a romanticised account of Robertson’s own journey, as the man describes his rise to fame and musical development with very grand, clearly quite prepared statements on the feeling and creativity in these moments of his career.
This is all well and good; Robertson is an engaging presence for the most part and his story is a fascinating one, from growing up in Toronto, he honed his musical talents quickly and was already playing in gigs with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks at the age of 15, to his pioneering work alongside his bandmates. Following Robertson only feels like it becomes an issue as we head into later tales of The Band’s narrative, as the group become divided up by members’ erratic behaviours involving alcohol and drugs, leading to paranoia and distrust amongst the ranks. Seeing as some members of The Band have passed on, represented here largely by archival interview footage, many of the accounts of this moment in time come from Robertson, and there’s the inescapable feeling that he’s not being entirely open and honest about his own behaviour.
Therefore, a lot of the more tragic elements of the story end up feeling a little hard to take at face value, as you very much get the impression that Levon, Rick and Richard would have had something different to say about their view of the experience. But, things being as they are, this is very much Robbie Robertson tells the story of The Band, and for any fan that should already come with a pinch of salt. But their tale remains compelling, and of course the music is thoroughly engrossing.
This doc particularly seems to revel in and enjoy the early days of The Band, and how the mix of blues and folk music came through experimenting on tour with Bob Dylan (much to the disapproval of the crowds that had come to see Bob Dylan the country-folk star), before setting themselves up in the Big Pink house in Woodstock to write and record their first music as The Band. It is a fascinating pocket of American music history and seeing the intimate footage of their time with Dylan and their creative sessions at Big Pink gives this documentary a soul. This paired with new talking-head interviews from those involved and those inspired, including the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese, should give this documentary enough new flavours to prove to be too enticing a prospect for fans of The Band to pass up.
The documentary comes to a natural conclusion with reflections on The Band’s history and their final performance altogether, immortalised in Scorsese’s classic concert film, The Last Waltz. These final reflections are where this doc’s shortcomings come to bear more strongly; Robertson’s romanticising verges on laughable and you, sort of, crave a little more digging into what was going on behind the scenes of The Last Waltz. It certainly gives you a hunger to revisit that joyous film to satiate your desire for something a little more fulfilling, but maybe that’s another documentary for another time.
For fans of The Band, Once Were Brothers will prove to be both an enjoyable trip down the road of The Band’s history, and also a little frustrating when it comes to its perspective. But, there’s still the music, and that will always be a joy to listen to in any context, and here it is presented in an energetic and spirited fashion, more than making the case for The Band’s indisputable place in the history of music. In that regard, this documentary doesn’t disappoint.
Dir: Daniel Roher
Scr: Daniel Roher
Prd: Lana Belle Mauro
DOP: Kiarash Sadigh
Music: Matthew Chalmers
Run time: 100 minutes
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is released on September 7th.