Film Review of “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”

Helen Highly Recommends Once Were Brothers, a documentary that was the opening-night film for DOC NYC 2019 and opens in theaters February 21st, based on the story of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson). For those who don’t know: the Band originally formed as The Hawk, a backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins but came to prominence during its time backing Bob Dylan on tour and later grew into a legend in its own right, widely credited with being on the forefront of three different musical revolutions. Impressively, the Band was one of the first rock groups to appear on the cover of Time.

"Once Were Brothers" poster

“Once Were Brothers” poster

I remember leaving the theater after viewing this film and feeling unusually buoyant. I felt uplifted. I was happy — smiling. Those are trite descriptions to use in would-be well-considered  film commentary, but they are worth my mentioning for two reasons. First, sitting through screenings at a documentary film festival is rarely a joyous experience. One must usually dig deep for an optimistic perspective on so many subjects that are relentlessly somber and ominous and often downright despairing. The music-themed biopics are usually the only films that escape the heavy weight of social or political gravity, and the best of those tend to interweave a disturbingly consequential thread from history, while the others are easily dismissed as frivolous fan films. So, it’s rare to find a meaningful, musical doc that feels triumphant without being trivial. Once Were Brothers is that film.

My other justification for offering a platitudinous reaction up front is to give the reader fair warning that I am neither a music historian nor expert. I will bet there are in-the-know others who will offer a more shrewd and critical assessment of this film. So, this is a Helen Highly Impressionable review. I am not a source of music intelligence, although I do know movies and this film easily won me over. But don’t take it from me; take it from Martin Scorsese.

legitimately optimistic

Executive producers Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer give this film a pedigree that sets it apart from the average music-history documentary and elevates it on every level – including a well-paced and smartly arranged narrative structure, some amazing archival footage and a cast of music legends to provide commentary. Plus, Robertson’s own intelligence and reflection make this seem like a truly valuable document about the history of American music. (The film is based somewhat on Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, which covered the first three decades of his life, but this documentary goes both deeper and wider.) First-time feature-length film director Daniel Roher may have had something to do with the film’s success, but he surely gets a ride on some long coattails.

"Testimony" by Robbie Robertson

“Testimony” by Robbie Robertson

Once Were Brothers was an ideal film to open the DOC NYC festival due to its multi-dimensional timeliness, most notably its connection to Martin’s Scorsese’s new mob epic, The Irishman, which was playing in theaters at the time and is now playing on Netflix and remains one of the hottest films in distribution (and an Oscar contender for Best Film). (Click here to read IndieNYC’s Irishman review.) In addition to Scorsese executive producing this film (and filming The Band’s spectacular 1976 farewell concert and turning that into a documentary – The Last Waltz), Robbie Robertson created the score for Scorsese’s latest film (in addition to four others since 1980). The tight Scorsese / Robertson relationship seems unlikely and is fascinating to me. Scorsese also participates in this film as a commentator and gives a detailed description of how he shot The Band’s famous, swan-song concert – what camera angles he used, why he chose not to show the audience, etc. This film feels very much like a collaboration of two great artists and thinkers and surely that’s what helps to make it so good. Plus, there’s the music.

Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese

Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese

There is even more to the timeliness of this film: At about the same time as this documentary first premiered at Toronto International Film Festival, Robertson also released his sixth solo album, Sinematic, and some of its tracks, including the Van Morrison collaboration “I Hear You Paint Houses,” are part of his score for The Irishman. Plus, coinciding with the documentary’s premiere, it was announced that The Band’s seminal sophomore album – declared “better than the Beatle’s Abbey Road” when it was first released – was getting a deluxe reissue (out now, remixed and expanded for its 50th anniversary). That album includes two of the important songs from this documentary, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” both rich with cinematic stories and eccentric Americana characters that are explored in the film. “The Weight” –perhaps The Band’s most significant song and number 41 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time – also figures prominently in the film, with tales about its inspiration and influences.

The film excels in its humanity. It is about the great possibilities and painful frailties of human nature.

All this is to say that this documentary is about the music of The Band as much as it is about the people in and around The Band. It manages to be a thoughtful, candid and compelling biopic of Robbie Robertson, The Band’s lead songwriter and guitarist (more on this later), in addition to exploring the uniquely close and crucial relationships – for better and worse – between The Band’s members, while balancing all that with broader historical perspective and commentary from other major musicians, including Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan, which may be worth the price of admission in itself. (And music. Did I mention lots of great music?)

So… for you Bob Dylan fans, yes indeed you will get your Dylan fix in this film. A hefty and heartfelt amount of time is spent recounting The Band’s infamously troubled tour with Bob Dylan (in which they were booed across America and throughout Europe) as well as their move to Woodstock, NY due to Dylan’s invitation and the vitally important time they all spent huddled together up there changing the very nature of popular music while creating “the basement tapes” in their little pink house. Yes, car crashes, heroin and romance too.

Bob Dylan and The Band

Bob Dylan and The Band

You don’t have to be a music history buff or even a particular fan of The Band’s music to appreciate this movie. It may also be true that being a serious music history buff can diminish your appreciation of this film. I get the impression that not every tale in this film is being told for the first time, so super fans may see some of it as old news. Perhaps more importantly, three of the five Band members are now dead, and one living in relative obscurity, so this film sometimes has the tone of a last-man-standing version of history. It is part biography but also part personal memoir of one man – Robbie Robertson, although he is one super-talented and articulate fellow. To my eyes, the film seems to bend over backward to be fair, but if you’re looking for an earth-shaking confession of some sort, you won’t find it here. We learn that members of The Band had some dispute about the equitable distribution of income and some other unresolved tensions, and while the film does not reveal any long-hidden secrets, it thoughtfully addresses the issues and moves on to what Robertson thinks is more important, and I believe the average film-goer will agree.

The film excels in its humanity. It is about the great possibilities and painful frailties of human nature. And it’s about the process of creativity – what it is, how it works, how it falls apart. It’s full of music. It’s full of wisdom. It’s full of inspiration (despite the profound sadness).

Once Were Brothers is pretty much the direct opposite of The Quiet One, if anyone remembers that documentary from last year, about bassist Bill Wyman, founding member the Rolling Stones. (Click here for my Quiet One review.) That film also featured its lead character speaking extensively about his past – a sort of end-of-career self-assessment, an attempt to break through the veil of myth and mystery that had long shadowed him. But The Quiet One failed in every way this film succeeds; that film was shallow where this one goes deep and that film evaded controversy where this one explores it.

For example, The Quiet One didn’t even mention any tension between Wyman and the rest of the Stones, but this film discusses the late-in-the-game internal problems at some length. (It never does mention that before the final, official break-up, the group toured briefly without Robbie, to mixed reviews, but at that point he was technically “on a break” and waiting for the others to clean up their acts, which they never did. One might credit Robertson for taking the high road and not dwelling on their failures or contributing to gossip. This is more a movie that attempts to understand success.) Both films have Eric Clapton doling out praise, but this one includes an amusing and telling moment where Robertson and Clapton were out of sync and Clapton passes some small judgement. Robertson is a good sport about it. Both Robertson and Wyman poignantly tell us their childhood tale of how they each acquired their first guitar. Both men’s careers share significant milestones and tragedies. But their memoir films couldn’t be more different.

Robbie Robertson goes deep

Robbie Robertson goes deep

I compared The Quiet One to Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, feeling as if I were watching Wyman fade into a confused, disappointed silence and this would be the last we heard from him. In this case, we learn that Robertson is still very much alive and well and working productively, and he has managed to transform his past pain and success into new artistry. He’s mentally inquisitive and emotionally connected and speaks with a surprising humility that seems genuine to me. It might be worth noting that Robertson’s wife – the same one he originally married in the early days of The Band – is said to now be an addiction therapist, which I would guess helped him to be as self-aware and honest as he is in this film. Wyman, however, is on wife #3. Just saying.

So, at this time of global tragedy, American presidential impeachment and vitriolic partisanship, withering Twitter and Facebook drama, and even #AwardsOutrage about the nominations and/or winners of the Golden Globes, BAFTA, SAG and Oscar, I suggest you take a break from the hate and go see this legitimately optimistic film. (And there’s music. Did I mention the music?)

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