Now playing somewhere near you, I bet:
ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND
(Dir. Daniel Roher, 2020)
When the legendary Canadian roots rock outfit, The Band, performed at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976, lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson conceived the event as the group’s farewell concert.
However, the other members of The Band, including drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, and organist/keyboardist Garth Hudson (multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986), resumed touring in the early ‘80s and even went on to release three albums in the ‘90s.
But you wouldn’t know that from this new documentary as it only covers the period in which Robertson was a principal member of The Band. Now, that’s not surprising as it is right in the film’s title: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND. There’s also the credit that the doc is “Inspired by” Robertson’s 2016 memoir Testimony. This all gives us plenty indication that this is Robertson’s biased version of what went down from the late ‘50s to the late ‘70s.
Still, the doc too often glosses over crucial eras, and gives only passing mentions to the friction between Robertson and Helm over songwriting royalties and Helm’s disappointment over Robertson’s decision to end the group.
Robertson talks us through The Band’s evolution from a bar band named The Hawks, which had them backing rowdy rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins to being the controversial rock group that accompanied iconic singer/songwriter Bob Dylan on his legendary 1966 tour to creating a series of classic records including Music From the Big Pink (1968), and The Band (1969).
But as juicy as this material is, the film relies too often on footage that will be very familiar to fans such as segments from the epic 2005 Dylan doc NO DIRECTION HOME, and, of course, THE LAST WALTZ. Both of these films were directed by Martin Scorsese, who happens to be one of Robertson’s best friends (they’ve collaborated on 10 films together), so that makes sense, but the guys lived together in the mid ‘70s so that would be cool to hear about too.
There are tons of photos sprinkled throughout, sometimes augmented with motion graphics by Charlie Shekter, and those alone will satisfy fans, but I bet they would prefer a deeper dive into one of the best Bands of the last half a century. I definitely would as I’m one of those fans and the film left me lacking.
In his later years before his death in 2012, Helm would complain about how THE LAST WALTZ was Robertson’s “vanity project.” The thing is that ONCE WERE BROTHERS, named after a song on Robertson’s 2019 album Sinematic, is much more of a vanity project than THE LAST WALTZ.
In the future when fans (again, I mean me) reach for a film featuring The Band, it surely won’t be this one; it’ll obviously be THE LAST WALTZ. Despite Helm’s criticisms, it’s one of the greatest concert films ever which tells the story of The Band in so much more of a glorious package than Robertson’s self-promoting infomercial of a documentary.