Is it just me or does the title of Daniel Roher’s rockumentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” reek of egomania? As any fan knows, it was always just “The Band.” No “Robbie Robertson and The Band.” No doubt he wrote most of the hits and played the meanest rock/blues guitar this side of Eric Clapton, but as the title also suggests, Robertson was just one of five guys who contributed equally in making “The Band” legendary. So, why is it now “Robbie Robertson and The Band,” as in Dick Dale and the Deltones or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers?
Perhaps it’s because the only living survivors of The Band are Robertson and Garth Hudson, one of whom ain’t talking. That pretty much leaves Robertson free to spin The Band’s story any way he wishes, which the 76-year-old pretty much does in sitting down with Roher to reflect on his 60-plus years as a performer. As you’d expect, the eventual breakup of The Band (memorably memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz”) was the fault of everyone but him. “They” were the ones drunk or stoned out of their minds. “They” were the ones who wanted for his intense work ethic. And “they” were the ones who lacked direction and purpose.
It’s a bit much. It also significantly undermines what Roher’s doc should have been, that being an examination of Robertson’s life, sans bandmates unable to chip in their own two cents from Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven, or in Hudson’s case, upstate New York. Yes, they were a big part of Robertson’s life, but the guys were together less than a third of Robertson’s still thriving career, which includes exclusivity as Scorsese’s go-to guy when it comes to scoring films, including the director’s latest, “The Irishman.”
It’s that movie we see Robertson slaving over as Roher and his camera enter the composer’s hermetically sealed studio for a sit-down chronicling his rise from Canadian musical prodigy to Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer. A lot of what we hear isn’t all that new, particularly the years and interactions involving Bob Dylan at the famed “Big Pink” hovel (scene of the “Basement Tapes”) near Woodstock, New York. Yet it feels fresh courtesy of all those terrific home movies and photos culled from Robertson’s private collection.
You’ll also get a chuckle out of Robertson’s reminiscences regarding The Band’s (then known as The Hawks) 1966 “going-electric” tour with Dylan, concerts in which night after night the six musicians were booed unmercifully while ducking projectiles hurled by the folk-loving-folk in the audience. It got so bad, Robertson recalls drummer Levon Helm quitting the band to seek refuge on an oil rig off the Louisiana coast. That tour ended somewhat symbolically with Dylan’s motorcycle crash in July 1966. The “Voice of a Generation” would not hit the road again until 1974, once more with The Band, but this time to the reception of universal love. The times, as someone wrote, they were a-changin’.
It was during Dylan’s eight-year hiatus that The Hawks became The Band, beginning with the seminal “Music from Big Pink” album. Suddenly, they had a name of their own. You can see Roberson’s warm, craggy face literally light up when recalling those halcyon days in the Woodstock sticks, months spent with his “brothers” making music, having good times and cementing bonds. But true to the “Behind the Music” cliché, it eventually started to go wrong, and Robertson blames it entirely on his mate’s drinking, drugging and lack of focus. Robertson, of course, was the Boy Scout in this scenario. Sorry, but I’m not totally buying it.
Nor is that period as interesting as Robertson’s youth, growing up the son of a gorgeous (you see where he gets his great looks) Indigenous mother and Jewish gangster father, murdered before Robbie was born. Because of his dad’s dubious past, he was led to believe his mom’s second husband was his biological father - that is until Pops turned abusive and Robbie and his mother fled to restart life on their own. It was also during this period that Robertson took an intense interest in music, inspired by his mother’s relatives on the Six Nations Indian Reserve just southwest of their home in Toronto.
He picked up the guitar and by the age of 15 was writing songs for the rockabilly outfit Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, and its own teen prodigy, drummer Levon Helm. Robertson would soon join the band, traveling from Toronto to the group’s home base in Eastern Arkansas (a trip that would inspire one of Robertson’s finest compositions, “Up on Cripple Creek”). Then, as the original members of the Hawks dropped out, other Canadians were hired in their place, most notably: pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. As they say, the rest is history.
In many ways, it’s a fun journey down memory lane, but at the same time, it’s aggravatingly self-serving. And the many clips of Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison gilding the lily with their effusive praise grow to be a bit much. But whenever you’re tempted to check out, one of those amazing songs pops up and you’re drawn back in. I would have liked to have been privy to more insights into where Robertson got his inspiration for writing his many classics, but what’s here is more than enough to inspire a deep dive into your collection of discs by Dylan and The Band, songs that remain as fresh and relevant today as they did 50 years ago. That, my friends, is the very definition of a treasure trove. It’s a shame there’s no one but Robertson left to define how those marvelous tunes should best be remembered.
Al Alexander may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”
A documentary by Daniel Roher featuring Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Taj Mahal.
(R for some language and drug references.)