Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

The title tells you right off the bat what you’re getting into with this supposedly definitive documentary about The Band: Robbie’s version, which has been contentious for years owing to how much drummer/singer/nominal frontman Levon Helm resented his post-breakup stewardship, which translated into taking the lion’s share of the group’s royalties and, for the most part, deciding that the organization was finished. Levon’s dead, of course, as are both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, so there is hardly anyone left to be contentious. (Survivor Garth Hudson always seemed the neutral-man-out, so I wouldn’t expect him to be contentious about anything) That said, the movie does make a case that drugs were their downfall, and only Robertson and Hudson (who probably didn’t do drugs) managed to get out with their lives, so in hindsight there’s much to be said for Robbie’s pulling himself together and at least making sure the legacy has reach.

Still, Robbie is as much of an asshole as he is a mensch, and his narration has the over-excited tenor of a pitchman, which is perhaps appropriate because, as he points out so convincingly, The Band started out as a bunch of teenagers who were essentially hawking their wares—they were even dubbed the Hawks by their first real mentor, rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, who is still feisty enough to repeat for the millionth time that line about how he got the Canadians (Helm, the sole American, was already working for him) on board: you won’t make any money, but you’ll get more pussy than Sinatra. And the doc’s real worth is how it plays up this pre-Dylan period in the ensemble’s career, which consisted of countless nights in dives playing R&B staples and Hawkins’ narrow cross-section of regional “hits.” 

The Dylan era is given less focus, which probably has something to do with copyrights (even if Bob himself shows up to offer up his own unique effusions), but that somehow feels right given that they were definitely in his shadow; that is, until they did the Basement Tapes in Saugerties, New York, at Big Pink, an event that is rightly mythologized here. Director Daniel Roher is careful to make all these elements coalesce into a satisfying hypothesis of what made these five musicians worthy of the bold moniker The Band. And that’s another reason why Robertson’s pushy personal take on the story, cribbed from his autobiography, grates a little. Roher is up to the task, but that task is to burnish Robbie’s reputation, which may explain why he didn’t get any on-film comments from Hudson. In fact, the one person who makes Robbie’s dominance acceptable is his wife, Dominique, who provides witness to the horrors of the group’s drug-taking days, including those in which her husband participated. None of this biographical material overshadows the musical import of the documentary, but The Band’s stature as perhaps the greatest, most organic North American group of the rock era is already carved in stone. The movie simply gives a few more examples of their musical greatness. What we come to Once Were Brothers for is the truth behind the myth, and Robbie is still sort of blocking the view. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), White Cine Quinto Shibuya (03-6712-7225).

Once Were Brothers home page in Japanese

photo (c) Robbie Documentary Productions Inc. 2019

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