The documentary, inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir “Testimony,” produced by the powerhouse duo of Ron Howard and Brain Grazer and directed by Daniel Roher, details the guitarist’s early life as the son of Mohawk mother Dolly and “Hebrew gangster” father named Alexander Klegerman who died before he was born. An interest in music and storytelling came from visiting his relatives on the Six Nations Reserve, inspiring him to pick up a guitar and express himself.
His “personal big bang” came with the discovery of rock and roll. An even bigger bang came when the teenaged Robertson saw Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, a flamboyant, ex-pat Southern American rock-a-billy musician playing in Toronto. The music, a frenetic blend of rock and roll and hopped-up country music, expertly played by a band that included drummer Levon Helm, spoke to Robertson, revealing an aural passageway to a world he had only ever read about. Eventually, at age sixteen, he joined the band, a move that set on the path to helping to take Bob Dylan electric, and form a band that melded Hank Williams, Muddy Waters with roots music into something that had never been heard before. When they played together, talking head and fan Bruce Springsteen says, “something happened that couldn’t happen on their own. Something miraculous.”
The Band, Canadian multi-instrumentalists and singers Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson alongside Robbie Robertson and Helm, made classic albums like “Music from Big Pink,” “The Band” and “Stage Fright,” and formed a logical, if not biological, musical family. “I was an only child so this brotherhood was so powerful,” says Robertson. But like all families there were problems. Unbridled creativity and stardom led to drug abuse and in 1976, after sixteen years together and documenting their final star-studded concert in the Martin Scorsese-directed “The Last Waltz,” they went their separate ways. Robertson says the idea was, “to get back together and make music like never before… everyone just forgot to come back.”
This is Robertson’s documentary. Helm, Danko and Manuel are all gone, while Hudson appears only in archival clips so the film has the feeling of a requiem for a friendship and brotherhood lost. Other than a visit to Helm’s deathbed, Robertson hadn’t spoken to his old bandmate in years. The film chalks up the skism in their relationship to drugs, jealousy and fighting the way only people who love one another can.
With a deep, sonorous voice that makes you wish he would narrate every documentary made from now on, Robertson eloquently shares his story, sometimes funny—having a hypnotist on stage at the Fillmore West to help him overcome nerves—and sometimes heartfelt—”I still loved him but something was broken,” he says of his relationship with Helm. “It was like glass. Hard to put back together.”—in a way that doesn’t lay blame, simply present his side of a much-debated rock ‘n roll feud.
Adding colour to the story are testimonials from Springsteen, Eric Clapton, ex-wife Dominique Robertson and, best of all, Hawkins who livens things up with his reminisces. “There was enough flour and sugar in that to make us sneeze biscuits,” he says of the cocaine backstage at “The Last Waltz.”
The final word on The Band is, of course, the music they left behind. Their musical partnership may have ended amid acrimony but “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band” understands that the lasting legacy is in the songs. Music appears throughout but Roher bookends the film with remarkable performances. Early on we see the guys, crammed into a small room, so closely packed they’re almost sitting on top of one another, rip through a version of “Up on Cripple Creek” so transcendent it could only be played by musicians connecting on a spiritual level. Roher finishes things off with footage from “The Last Waltz” that showcases the band in all their ragged glory proving that in the end, it’s the music that matters.