by C.J. Hirschfield
A good documentary can take a subject we think we already know, and present it in a fuller and more complex context, leading us to a new level of understanding and appreciation. ONCE WERE BROTHERS; ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND does just that, by telling the story of an iconic and pioneering Americana band of five that Robertson describes as “a beautiful thing—so beautiful it went up in flames.” The film, directed by Daniel Roher, also greatly benefits from interviews with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, and many others.
First, the beautiful part, which makes up most of the film. Before the songs: The Weight, Up On Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and so many others, there was Robbie Robertson, the child, discovering guitar through the mentorship of family members who lived on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada.
At age 13, the music of Chuck Berry, BB King, Bill Haley and others cemented his desire to devote himself completely to music; the desire never wavered.
In 1959, the teenage Robertson opened for the Canadian rockabilly band Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The gruff and salty Hawkins’ interviews in the film provide a priceless perspective of Robertson—and his remarkable work ethic– over the decades. It was through Hawkins’ band that Robertson met drummer/singer Levon Helms, as well as Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko—the brothers who would later become The Band. At age 15, Robertson wrote his first two songs–for Ronnie—and actually joined his band. The Hawks were Delta and down and dirty, and clearly influenced by the likes of Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis.
When Robertson and his band “brothers” left Hawkins to try their luck in New York, what followed was a fascinating, and deep collaboration with Bob Dylan over the years, which the film details.
But it was in Woodstock, New York in 1967 (in a big pink house) that everything changed. The house and its studio became a sanctuary, where writing, creating and collaborating resulted in a sound “like nothing we’d done before.” That’s when they came up with their unpretentious name—The Band—and Robertson called up the characters and situations of his youth to create some of the group’s most beloved songs. The “Music From Big Pink” album exploded, and The Band and its new roots music were celebrated as a brilliant synthesis of many different genres.
The rest of the “beautiful” part included Robertson’s long-lasting marriage, and the birth of their children, both of which he cherished.
Okay, so now the “up in flames” part. In brief, alcohol and drugs on the part of his fellow band members led to car crashes, conflict and chaos.
After having been together for 16 years, The Band performed The Last Waltz concert at San Francisco’s Winterland in 1976, joined by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan. Martin Scorsese directed what is widely regarded as being one of the greatest documentary concert films of all time, and we’re treated with clips here.
After the concert, it was Robertson’s desire to have the group “come back together and make music like we’d never made music before…but everybody just forgot to come back.” It would be their last concert, with other members of the group going in their own directions.
In the end, Robertson comes off as a very sincere, dedicated and sensitive person, whose respect for music and family defines him, and who treasured the camaraderie and the journey he took with his brothers.
Director Daniel Roher takes his time to tell the story of The Band, deftly utilizing rare, archival footage, historical photos, and priceless rehearsal and concert recordings.
You don’t need to be a fan of The Band to appreciate this film, which really serves as a vibrant chronicle of American music–albeit inspired by a Canadian.
ONCE WERE BROTHERS; ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND is playing at:
Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema and UA Regal Stonestown in San Francisco
Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley
Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael
And throughout the U.S. Check here to find a theater near you.
See below for links of interest and several musical numbers from The Last Waltz.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”
Director Daniel Roher is interviewed by Sharp‘s Pat Mullen.
Explore Robbie Robertson’s Website.