How much is history reshaped by those who simply live long enough to tell the tale? Once most of the main players involved in a true-life story have passed away, can we trust only one of the people involved to retell that story honestly, without bias?
These questions come to mind watching Once Were Brothers, the new documentary from director Daniel Roher about singer/guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson and the group he was a vital part of, The Band.
You can hear The Band’s rustic mix of American roots music and rock ‘n’ roll in a lot of places these days. There are echoes of songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Chest Fever” in bands like Shovels & Rope, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and many more. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Band’s back-to-basics approach, which seemed so alien in the late-’60s when psychedelia and endless jamming ruled the day, helped to create the genre of music that we now call Americana.
And this film certainly dives deep into the story of how four Canadians (Robertson, singer/pianist Richard Manuel, keyboardist Garth Hudson and singer/bassist Rick Danko) and one American (singer/drummer Levon Helm) created a stunning catalog.
Using archival footage and an extended interview with Robertson, Roher traces The Band’s evolution from the early-’60s onward, detailing how the nucleus of Levon Helm and Robertson came together, their time backing rockabilly wildman Ronnie Hawkins, their infamous stint with Bob Dylan as he went from acoustic folkie to electric rocker, and how they finally stepped out on their own with their 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink.
Roher does an excellent job documenting Robertson and company’s tour with Dylan, where they were essentially booed off the stage at every show. There’s a startling moment during that section of the film when a harried-looking Dylan asks one fan to tell people to stop booing him. And more than 50 years down the line, Robertson still seems confused that no one at the time seemed to realize how good the music that his band and Dylan were making was.
And musically speaking, Once Were Brothers is a delight. Danko, Helm and Manuel’s sweet-and-sour vocal blend is moving as ever, and the sound of Garth Hudson’s thunderous organ intro to “Chest Fever” still tingles the spine.
But as incredible as this music still sounds, the film itself becomes more problematic the longer it goes on. As one of two surviving members of the original band and the main songwriter, Robertson obviously deserves a lot of screen time, but certainly there have to be enough recorded interviews with Danko, Helm and Manuel to give them more than the few scant minutes of each that Roher uses. As appealing as the interviews with luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison and Eric Clapton are (Bob Dylan is oddly absent, save for one brief sound bite), it would be nice to hear more from the other men who crafted The Band’s sound.
The focus on Robertson tips the film off balance, especially when it covers the years after The Band’s star-studded, career-capping Last Waltz show and movie.
Roher spends about ten minutes at the tail end of the movie on the messy aftermath of The Band’s late-‘70s breakup, which was originally just supposed to be a hiatus so that the group could recharge, and so that Helm, Danko and Manuel could deal with their debilitating drug problems.
As the ’80s dawned, a rift developed between Helm and Robertson, with Helm claiming he deserved songwriting credit for some of The Band’s material. But Robertson, his friends and his wife do virtually all of the talking during this part of the story, and despite an allusion to Helm’s bad-mouthing Robertson in the press, Roher doesn’t use any specific quotes to back it up.
The film also completely omits the fact that Helm, Hudson and Danko reformed The Band in 1983 and kept it going until Danko’s death in 1999, which seems like an important part of the story. Perhaps Roher felt that including that would have made Robertson’s role in the group seem less important, but 16 years is a lot to leave out of any band’s history.
In the opening minutes of Once Were Brothers, Robertson plays a bit of a new song of the same name, in which he sings, “Once were brothers, brothers no more.”
But in a film that purports to be about all of them, it would be nice to hear more from his former siblings.
What: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
Where: Nickelodeon Theatre, 607 Main St.
When: Through March 5 (two showings daily)