‘Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band’ review: a folk-rock family falls apart

Featuring new interviews with Clapton, Springsteen and Martin Scorsese, this gripping documentary charts the rise and fall of music's most anonymous trailblazers

The Band lived the rock ’n’ roll ride in microcosm. Plucked from relative obscurity in 1966 to back Bob Dylan on his controversial and game-changing electric tour, where they were jeered and “Judas!”ed just for existing at all, they were, in effect, built up and knocked down at the same moment. On their first attempt at an album of their own, 1968’s ‘Music From Big Pink’, they virtually invented their own genre, Americana, condensing centuries of southern history and songcraft into a sound both as old as the hills and as fresh as the sky. And, within just a few years, they had succumbed to the age-old rock follies – fast cars, paranoia, heroin. Their star-studded 1976 ‘The Last Waltz’ concert was indeed a fond farewell; despite semi-reunions the five members – Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson – would never play a full show together on stage again.

So The Band’s story seems perfectly concise and contained, ideal celluloid fare, and Once Were Brothers’ director Daniel Roher does a fabulous job of scooping it up in one piece and placing it neatly on film. Having Martin Scorsese – who directed the film of The Last Waltz and created an acclaimed sideline in films about Dylan, The Stones and George Harrison – as executive producer can only have helped Roher line up some of the biggest names in rock as talking heads. Springsteen, Clapton, Peter Gabriel and Van Morrison appear to doff the cap; Bruce credits ‘…Big Pink’ as changing his entire musical outlook and Eric recalls leaving Cream to hunt the band down and ask to join.

The film could only have been more canonised if Dylan himself had narrated. Instead, he appears in one brief cameo, nipped from Scorsese’s 2005 documentary on him, No Direction Home, calling The Band “gallant knights for even standing behind me” on the 1966 tour. What the film loses in such Pope-like patronage, however, it gains in archival intrigue. Arguably the most fascinating moment is drawn from the unseen Dylan archive: the band escaping the baying, booing hordes of ’66 in the back of a car, with Dylan gasping, “What I don’t understand is how could they buy the tickets up so fast?” in tangible frustration. A peek behind the curtain of rock ’n’ roll myth, right there.

Robbie Robertson
Lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band, Robbie Robertson. Credit: Alamy

But then everything about The Band feels so steeped in dust and mythology that the entire film feels like a window into something strangely arcane. Robbie Robertson discussing his secret gangster parenthood and childhood visits to his roots on a native American reservation. The nostalgic magic of their early days backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins when, according to Robertson, Helm would “glow in the dark”. The familial seclusion of their days in the Big Pink house in Woodstock, weaving harmonic wonders in the basement, and the Shining-like deterioration that ensued – car crashes, opiates, alcoholism, burn out. If anything the story sometimes outweighs the music, with seminal tracks floating by in the background while you’re riveted to the story centre-stage, but that’s corrected with a truly moving rendition of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ from The Last Waltz, the passion and power of a brotherhood in full flow. Take a load off and sink in.

Details

  • Director: Daniel Roher
  • Starring: Martin Scorsese, Marilyn Monroe, Levon Helm
  • Release date: September 7 (Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download)

 

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