Canadian documentarian Daniel Roher, 26, grabbed the spotlight of the world’s largest public film festival, when his new film on Robbie Robertson and The Band opened TIFF in early September. Luckily, the music doc – executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard – is a joyous, moving, and absorbing look at one of roots rock’s greatest groups.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is now playing in select cities across Canada, and will launch on the Crave streaming service in 2020.
The film bolsters Robertson’s name, and his biography takes precedence, but this is very much a documentary about the camaraderie that went into a decade’s worth of musical mastery.
The 100-minute film is most powerful when it tracks the creative odyssey of the group’s five founding members. However, Once Were Brothers is such a treasure chest of winning archival footage, blended together with fantastic music, that one often wishes the film would slow down and bask more in Robertson’s rock and roll memories.
It chronicles the days when a teenage Robertson sold a Stratocaster guitar to buy a train ticket from Toronto to Fayetteville, Ark. In the Deep South and on tour throughout North America, he found kinship with Ronnie Hawkins’ lively backing band, including folks named Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson.
Once Were Brothers follows the five men from that stage to backing Bob Dylan on his infamous electric tour, and then to the iconic pink house, just outside of Woodstock, N.Y., which inspired the name of The Band’s lauded début album, Music From Big Pink.
The film also captures Robertson’s childhood, and his passion for the guitar – a love that blossomed when, as a boy, he visited the Six Nations reserve where his mother, Dolly, was born. When the sun would go down, the 76-year-old songwriter reminisces, the musical instruments came out.
“I don’t know for sure if I would’ve ever found my way to music without this experience,” Robertson says.
There is also a brief but pertinent scene when Robertson learns of his Jewish heritage. His father, a “Hebrew gangster” from Toronto named Alexander Klegerman, was killed before Robertson was born.
Among Once Were Brothers’ best features are what came unearthed from archives. This includes footage of glitzed-up marquees along Yonge Street circa the late 1950s, when Robertson started opening for rockabilly group Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, as well as Polaroids of the guitarist’s early fatherhood, which coincided closely with The Band’s birth.
In between, there is amazing live footage of the musicians accompanying Bob Dylan on a tour where they were constantly booed. A few years later, touring as a five-piece outfit, the crowds were much kinder, singing along to classics like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Roher has structured a film full of rhythm – edits match the percussive cuts of Helm’s drumming – and blues. The sequences of a young Robertson’s musicianship, mostly culled from archival footage, are electric bliss.
Still, Once Were Brothers’ framing device could have also used more texture. The film’s early minutes show a contemporary, contemplative Robertson in the recording studio, and a few bars of the eponymous track, which will be on the rocker’s next album. Considering Robertson’s reverence for his former bandmates, there was fertile ground for Roher to dig into the fresh material.
As suggested by its title, the most enduring footage comes from the support the five musicians had for each other, as they navigated the mountains and valleys of rock and roll fame. Eventually, Once Were Brothers rests on the typical rise-and-fall tropes when substance abuse started to tear the group apart.
The doc becomes uneven when it only has a few scenes to focus on the rockers’ inevitable ruptures, such as the substance abuse that fuelled bad blood between Robertson and Helm. Even if it culminates with rousing footage from The Last Waltz, the concert immortalized on film by Scorsese, some details about The Band’s disbanding are too smoothed over.
While Roher’s film does not transcend some of the music doc trappings – including new interviews with Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen that are rather hagiographic – this is a striking and surprisingly intimate look at the men behind The Band.
The group’s most ardent fans may find sections of Once Were Brothers to be well-trod territory, but will likely relish newly excavated snapshots from this classic rock era. More casual listeners should find these musical adventures to be irresistible.
Once Were Brothers is currently playing in Toronto and Vancouver and opens tomorrow in Montreal, Hamilton, and Waterloo, Ont. It also screens at the Toronto Hot Docs Cinema on Oct. 11. Please see below for additional screening dates and cities.
September 27 – October 3 Cineplex Forum Montreal
September 27 – October 3 The Playhouse, Hamilton
September 27 – October 3 Princess Cinemas, Waterloo
September 27 – October 3 Bookshelf Cinema, Guelph
October 3 Edmonton Film Festival
October 6 – 11 Sudbury Indie Cinema, Sudbury
October 11 – 24 Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto
October 11 – 15 Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton
November 1 – 10 Windsor Film Festival date tbc, Windsor
March 6 Downtown DocFest, Belleville