Film Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (NZIFF 2020)

Well, they might have once been brothers, but they ended up as warriors. Anyone who knows the basic details of the history of The Band, knows that a film about them, based on one bandmember’s book, is going to wind up being somewhat one-sided. In this case, it’s Robbie Robertson’s singular take on things.

Director: Daniel Roher

Sadly, there were sides. Anyone who has read drummer/vocalist Levon Helm’s 1993 book, This Wheel’s On Fire, knows that there was no love lost between him and Robbie Robertson in the days and years after The Last Waltz.

Now, with Levon gone, along with Rick Danko and Richard Manual, and keyboard player Garth Hudson choosing (wisely) to stay out of things, that leaves Robbie to write (or re-write) history.

The early days of Robertson’s career and the formation of The Band back in the 1960s is the most rewarding part of the documentary. Here they are, young guys full of talent and a love of all things rock & roll, backing up veteran front man Ronnie Hawkins. Fortunately Ronnie is still around and his stories are among the film’s best.

The days of backing Dylan on the boo-infested 1966 tour are also well represented, although much of this material has been covered elsewhere.

The same goes for the time Dylan & The Band headed off to Woodstock making the music known as The Basement Tapes along with the glorious Music From Big Pink.

Music From Big Pink, album cover. Photo by Elliot Landy

But the combination of alcohol, drugs, egos and mental illness meant that The Band’s glory days were relatively short-lived and they finally wrapped things up in grand style with The Last Waltz in 1976.

That’s pretty much where the film ends.

Robbie claims that the group was supposed to get back together after a well-earned break but that “everybody just forgot to come back.”

The reality is that everyone did come back except Robertson. The reconstituted Band toured constantly and recorded sporadically, but Robbie never did play with them again…the most glaring example of his version of the truth.

That said, the film is worth watching just for the music…I can never get tired of hearing The Weight…and the brief comments from folks like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Dylan himself who, reminiscing on that 1966 tour states, “they were gallant knight, for standing behind me.”

Well, that good enough for me. Enjoy the stories (many have been told many times before) and love the music.

Marty Duda