I’ll fully admit, I happen to think The Band is one of the greatest musical acts of all time, with one of the most fascinating backstories ever told. Hell, they even staged the finest farewell concert of all time, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as the epic journey through music’s history with The Last Waltz, arguably the best concert film in history. So when director Daniel Rober pieced together Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, I was fully prepared to be taken on a journey I’ve been preparing for since college, when I first saw The Last Waltz.
As the title suggests, this is a documentary about The Band as told through the stories of Robbie Robertson, the co-founder, primary songwriter, and member who had the greatest post-Band career of the five members. They were Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm—three of whom have already died and the fourth who did not submit to a new interview for this film. So the only new interviews are with Robertston, who seems to be squeezing in his talking while making his most recent album, which includes a bittersweet song about The Band called “Once Were Brothers.” He’s in the perfect reflective mood, remembering fondly his bandmates as a brotherhood, entering into a world that none of them were really prepared for, one that included monumental highs and crashing lows, often caused by drugs and clashing egos.
We do get some much-needed perspective from the other members of The Band through archival interviews, and the film also includes new interviews with famous fans and friends of the group, including Van Morrison, Eric Clapton (who wanted desperately to be in the group), Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan (for whom The Band played as backing band on two separate tours), and producer Scorsese, whose intersections with the group and Robertson are undeniable. As much as you might be tempted to take Robertson’s take on the group’s problems with a grain of salt, his confessional tone is honest and revealing. He also was the only member who didn’t have a substance abuse problem and had a wife and children early on, so he had more to lose if The Band was underperforming. The film finds a great deal of humor in the group’s story, especially in the years when they were known as The Hawks and were considered the greatest white R&B group in the country, backing Ronnie Hawkins.
But it’s the stories about recording The Band’s first few albums that are the most interesting, especially when you consider that Robertson was Canadian but he still managed to capture the spirit of American roots rock—which incorporates elements of blues, gospel and folk—in his songwriting, with such songs as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “The Weight.” The film essentially ends with The Last Waltz, which was the last time that all five original members played together, and is perhaps the only downside of Once Were Brothers. There is so much more story to tell about the individual members, but the film seems content to only tell the story of the group when they were fully together as comrades, and ultimately that’s what matters to most fans. It’s a moving tribute and a stirring document, and there is so much great music in it, it almost doesn’t seem fair.
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