Up in flames: “Once Were Brothers” documentary review


Photo courtesy of Den of Geek

Story by John Cantor/Contributing Writer

“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” is the journey of a group of musicians that went on to mean a lot more than just another backing band striking out on their own; A group so important in the musical and cultural lexicon they spurred the beginnings of the Americana music genre as we know it. This journey from the very beginning is guided by the nostalgic hand of Robbie Robertson, who tends to romanticize this period of his life. Rather than clearing away the fog of mythology behind The Band and his part in it, he lays it on even thicker, inviting us to travel through and bask in his view of the past.

We are introduced with the shake and rattle of the sound of old film and an opening credits to match. Notable names flash across this noir design, such as “Executive Producer: Martin Scorsese,” immediately letting you know the caliber of those involved. It’s notable that Scorsese directed the acclaimed “The Last Waltz,” concert on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, as it ended up being the last time all five members of The Band performed together. This isn’t too much of a surprise, as Scorsese and Robertson have worked together many times over the years. Robertson recently wrote the score for Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

The first we see of Robbie is him plugging one of his iconic guitars from his youth, with a hum of electricity in the room, into an amp with a satisfying crunch. Robertson is no stranger to telling stories, and right from the start he entrances any viewer with an appreciation or curiosity of The Band with burning lines such as, “The story of The Band was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames.”

From these igniting first lines to portraying his upbringing as this mystical hero’s journey, Robertson adds a flare of what some may consider to be dramatic. The genuine intensity in his voice over the narration is almost enough to convince the audience that his story really is as big as it sounds. Early on it is established that this is more of Robbie’s story. It’s how he came to be, well Robbie Robertson, one of the most prolific songwriters of the 20th century with instant classics like “The Weight.” This is no surprise as the film is based off his New York Times best-selling 2017 memoir “Testimony.” Director Daniel Rohrer has made it very clear he took directly from that point of view, and Robertson has even gone on to clarify “This is not the story of The Band, it’s my perspective of the story of The Band. It’s my experience.”

Though it is not the entire story of The Band for these reasons, there are quite a few experiences of Robertson’s that cut to the heart of the group and really illustrate the life of The Band’s main songwriter with vivid colors. As with any great hero’s journey, we start at the beginning. Robbie got his start in music while visiting relatives with his mother on the Six Nations Reservation outside of Toronto.

“Whenever we would go there from my earliest memories it seemed to me that everybody played an instrument or sang or danced,” said Robertson.

This led to him learning the guitar, so he could be like everyone else around him, making music and telling stories. Robertson describes the great feelings he had listening to the music on the reservation as a young boy, how you could hear and see the hands and fingers striking and rubbing against strings or the tight skins of the native drum heads. We are transported to a sparse post-World War II reservation, where the only entertainment is made by the inhabitants and families that live there. This early learned spirituality comes up time and time again in Robertson’s recollection of his musical voyage.

Before leaving Toronto to venture down to the Southern Delta of Arkansas at just 16 years old, Robertson formed his own series of bands. Interjected throughout the film are commentaries by Toronto musicians on how Robertson’s guitar sound inspired them, stirring up lots of rumors on how he achieved it. Guitarists would slash their equipment, in hopes of mangling it into the “Robbie sound” whenever they heard through the grapevine that he did that.

Robertson also tells of when his mother, Rosemarie, finally revealed that the man who helped raised him, and had become abusive towards them both, was not his birth father. His real biological father was Jewish Mafioso Alex Klegerman, who had died some years prior. Along with the shock of finding out he was half-Jewish from his Cayuga and Mohawk mother, he was introduced to his father’s side of the family. They immediately accepted him as their own. This last chapter before taking off into the world would also affect his perspective on life, as his time on the reservation would. In a funny recollection of conversations Robertson had with his new Jewish family. They were very confused about why he wanted to play guitar until they had the realization of “Oh! You want to get into show business.”

Around this time, we start to see how Robertson finally met the other four members of what would become The Band. After opening for the rockabilly sensation Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, Robertson was in awe and knew exactly who he wanted to play with. Robertson exclaims like a child in a candy store, the grandeur of Hawkins’ show. A certain young drummer who couldn’t have been much older than Robertson himself stuck out. He was twirling his sticks in the air and playing like he was having the time of his life. This was Levon Helm. Eventually Robertson would go on to audition for The Hawks, and take his first journey into the deep south, the heartland of the rock and roll music he loved so much.

Everything from this point on seems to speed up. As Hawkins replaces members of his band for better musicians from Canada, the rest of the members who will eventually make up The Band unite: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and of course Robbie Robertson. All of them were from Canada except for Levon, the only direct Southern connection. After splitting off from Hawkins to form their own group, they end up with the name Levon and The Hawks. A fellow blues and rock musician, John Hammond Jr., the son of famous A&R man John Hammond, introduced the guys to a former folkie and burgeoning electric rocker named Bob Dylan. Dylan was so impressed by the group that he asked them to back him on what would become his most infamous tour.

The musical revolution they helped bring about smashed them through the boundaries they would break in their later recordings as a group. Speeding through to their time in the mystical town of Woodstock, NY and then their next upheaval and move to Malibu, Robertson seems to look fondly on what they all accomplished there, despite acknowledgement of the dark shadows of addiction covering the other members. In the film, he always seems to be portrayed as a source of light in bad times.

There are several large time-span gaps, but with such an incredible career it is near impossible to include all of them. This is made up for with an incredible cast of people interviewed like Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton and many more. Some big details though seem to be glaringly absent, such as the incredible performance at Woodstock in 1969, or Richard Manuel’s death by suicide while on tour in 1986 nearly a decade after The Band had officially gone their separate ways. Robertson just skips from “The Last Waltz” performance, in which he neglects to mention how Levon thought it was one of the biggest rip-offs ever pulled on The Band, to sitting by Levon’s death bed in 2012. This is where his memoir leaves off though as well, with a nice farewell to Levon, who was unconscious when Robertson came to visit him as he died. There are plans for a second memoir, so perhaps a future film will cover more of these stories lost in the mystic.

While Robertson seems to really care for and love his bandmates, his “brothers,” he never seems to shine a direct spotlight on his own demons, continuing the theme of a noble and humble hero. He doesn’t even address any relationship issues he had with his ex-wife and mother of his three children, who is interviewed extensively in the film and seems to have no bad blood despite a divorce. In fact, she seems to add to his image as a good natured character in this story.

This at first glance seems to be a fault in the film. Robertson does not confront the true conflicts he had with Levon. It’s said that Helm took a bitter grudge to the grave. Robertson avoids any underhanded comments about anyone though. It seems against the grain of his character to do so. This is when it becomes clear that Robertson is not ignorant of these difficulties in life, or even trying hide it. It’s when the lyrics of his song that play at the beginning and end of the film, where the title gets its name from, become clear.

“You miss your brothers, But now they’re gone…Once were brothers, Brothers no more.” Robertson is merely trying to preserve and resurrect a peace on the topic of his relation to The Band. He loves all of his “brothers” dearly. He shows that holding on to the resentment of the past is something he chooses to not bear the weight of.

Perhaps we could all learn something from this way of interpreting the past; Not changing facts or avoiding dark truths, but remembering the joy that made anything feel like magic in the first place and created a brotherhood with The Band.

 

To contact Lifestyles Editor Brandon Black, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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