Once Were Brothers

After much searching, we found the perfect spot right outside their window. Or did it find us? Levon and Rick’s yard. Woodstock, NY, ’68


Rock legend Robbie Robertson was one-fifth of The Band, one of the most enduring groups in popular music history. During their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, they pioneered roots rock, aka “Americana.” Not the frontman, but the creative songwriting force, Robertson, now 76, looks back at his early life, influences, the band’s beginnings and how meeting Bob Dylan changed their lives.

This documentary uses archival footage, vast sources of photography, live recordings and interviews with some of rock’s heaviest hitters – Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and George Harrison – to provide insight into this band of brothers.

LYNN’S Take:

Touring with Bob Dylan. A song on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack. Playing at Woodstock. The unpretentiously-named, The Band was in the middle of an exploding music scene in the 1960s and 1970s until, in Robbie Robertson’s words, it all blew up.

The articulate and charismatic Robertson is still making music, mainly with Martin Scorsese, who directed The Band’s seminal music documentary “The Last Waltz” on Thanksgiving Day 1976 in San Francisco (released two years later after sifting through 400 hours of footage). Robertson, in turn, would music produce or score nearly all his films, most recently “The Irishman.”

This is Robertson’s account of how his Canadian brotherhood with Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson made music at a “magical time” and how celebrated they were by other artists, culminating in an unforgettable all-star concert that would be their final live appearance all together.

Sadly, only two survive, and relationships were fractured beyond repair in the late ‘70s and ‘80s after three members with substance abuse problems, now deceased, had a bitter break-up with Robertson. They can’t talk for themselves and survivor Garth Hudson, who lives with his wife Maud in Woodstock, N.Y., isn’t talking either about an acrimonious “family” feud.

Robertson doesn’t avoid the unpleasantness of what happened, and how “a beautiful thing” flamed out, in no small part to heavy heroin usage, junkie behavior and resulting paranoia. So, we don’t get the flip side. His autobiography, “Testimony: A Memoir” (2016), is credited as the source material.

And it’s a glorious ride during their inspired halcyon days. Most remarkable is that the quintet was no greater than the sum of their parts, Bruce Springsteen said. Eric Clapton said he was in awe of their brotherhood.

The fabled communal creative productivity of living in a pink house in Saugerties, N.Y., that lead to “The Basement Tapes” and their debut 1968 album “Music from Big Pink” could no longer sustain them.

Toronto-born Robertson moves his then-wife Dominique, a Montreal journalist, and their three children to Malibu, and his home movies of an idyllic family life is shown. Dominique, now an addiction therapist, offers her account of The Band’s artistic life.

After the ambitious Robertson works out a big deal with David Geffen, who also signs Bob Dylan to his Asylum Records, things began to change – even with their renowned 1974 tour, unlike the first time around in 1966 as Dylan’s ‘back-up band’ during this new “electric” phase – they were booed.

If you only knew The Band from “The Last Waltz” and their biggest hits “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” get ready for a fascinating account of its rise and downfall.

Director Daniel Roher has condensed the creative journey, reflections on that illustrious time in music history and Robertson’s interesting life carved after humble beginnings into an engrossing documentary that should appeal to music fans of all ages.