Review: ‘Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,’ starring Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Hawkins, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

The Band in “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” Pictured from left to right: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. (Photo by Elliott Landy)

“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band”

Directed by Daniel Roher

Culture Representation: Inspired by the 2016 “Testimony” memoir of musician Robbie Robertson (who is of Canadian and Native American heritage), this documentary tells his perspective of his life, with a particular focus on The Band, a group of rock musicians that went from being Bob Dylan’s backup band to international stars of their own right.

Culture Clash: Although most of The Band consisted of Canadians, they helped pioneer the blues-and-folk-inspired rock genre known as Americana, but The Band imploded over ego problems and drug addictions.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Robbie Robertson and The Band, as well as people who enjoy documentaries about classic rock artists.

The Band in “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” Pictured from left to right: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. (Photo by David Gahr)

In case it wasn’t clear from the title of the movie, the documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” is a biography that’s heavily slanted toward Robbie Robertson, one of the co-founders of The Band. The movie is told from his perspective, so it’s really his life story, although his time with The Band is at the heart of the movie. This traditionally made documentary (the first feature film from Canadian director Daniel Roher) takes viewers through a comprehensive and very Robertson-biased history of the group, whose original lineup broke up in 1976.

Born in 1943, Robertson knew from an early age that he wanted to be a musician. The movie begins with Robertson talking about his humble origins growing up in his native Toronto as an only child of factory workers who were in an interracial relationship: His father James Patrick Robertson was white, and his mother Rosemarie Dolly Robertson was a Native American who had ties to the Mohawk community and the Six Nations Reserve. When he was in his early teens, Robertson found out that his birth name was Jaime Royal Klegerman, because his biological father was really a Jewish gambler named Alexander David Klegerman.

After Robertson found out who his biological father was, he got to know the Klegerman side of his family, and was fascinated by his biological father’s outlaw lifestyle. This fascination also coincided with his growing interest in rock’n’roll, which was a new genre when he was a teenager, and it was considered the music of rebels. Although Robertson would learn to play several instruments, the guitar was his instrument of choice.

At the age of 13, he joined his first band (a cover band called Little Caesar and the Consuls), which lasted for about a year. Through sheer determination and persistence, Robertson talked his way into professional gigs, and for most of his mid-teens he played in local bands and worked at carnivals. He usually lied about his age back then, and because he was so talented and looked older than his real age, he was able to convince people to hire him as a musician.

When he was just 16, he began working with rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins as a guitarist in The Hawks, which was Hawkins’ backup band. Hawkins is interviewed in the documentary, and he shares fond memories of Robertson, whom he remembers as being bright and ambitious. Through his experience with The Hawks, Robertson met the other musicians who would eventually become members of The Band: drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, keyboardist/saxophonist Garth Hudson and multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel. All of them were Canadian, except for Helm, who was American. (Helm died in 2012, Danko died in 1999, and Manuel died in 1986.)

In addition to Hawkins, Robertson credits Helm and guitarist Roy Buchanan (who was briefly a member of The Hawks) as being extremely influential to him as a young musician. Helm in particular became like an older brother to Robertson, so when their relationship turned sour years later, Robertson said it was heartbreaking for him.

In 1964, The Hawks left Hawkins and began performing as Levon and The Hawks, with Helm as lead singer/drummer, Robertson as lead guitarist, Danko as bassist, Manuel as multi-instrumentalist and Hudson as keyboardist/saxophonist. Their music was bluesier and more soulful than the rockabilly that Hawkins performed. That blues/soul influence would later become part of The Band’s signature sound. It’s rock music that mixes elements of blues, soul, folk and country—a subgenre that people now call Americana.

The group known as Levon and The Hawks then began working as Bob Dylan’s backup band in 1965, and they toured the world with him for about a year. (Dylan is not interviewed in this documentary, but there’s archival footage of Dylan working with the band.) It was through Dylan and his manager Albert Grossman that The Hawks relocated to upstate New York, where Dylan was based at the time. The band members settled in the cities of Woodstock and West Saugerties.

This relocation was a pivotal moment in Robertson’s history because it led to the famous “Basement Tape Sessions” of 1967, when Dylan and members of the band wrote and recorded songs together in a pink house in West Saugerties. By this time, The Hawks had renamed themselves The Band, and did recording sessions on their own without Dylan as the lead singer. The sessions would turn into The Band’s landmark 1968 debut album, “Music from Big Pink,” which included the single “The Weight,” which is arguably The Band’s best-known song.

The instant success of “Music From Big Pink” created demand for The Band as a standalone act, so the group amicably parted ways with Dylan, although The Band would occasionally work with Dylan again as a guest collaborator. The Band continued to have a steady stream of success, including the hit songs “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Don’t Do It” and “On a Night Like This.” (The Band was also one of the performers at the Woodstock Festival, although the performance didn’t make it into the “Woodstock” movie.)

The Band was unusual because the group’s original lineup had three lead singers—Helm, Robertson and Danko—and that jockeying for frontman power caused internal conflicts over who would sing lead on which songs. However, The Band was an example of being a group whose sum was greater than its parts. The documentary includes a treasure trove of great behind-the-scenes photos, audio recordings and video footage of The Band rehearsing and recording. Even if people are already familiar with The Band before seeing this documentary, this footage is a reminder how special and electrifying The Band’s chemistry was.

And that once-in-a-lifetime chemistry is one of the reasons why The Band was so well-respected among musical peers. The documentary interviews famous fans Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal and the usually media-shy Van Morrison, who talk about how much they admired the musicianship and songwriting talent in The Band. Bruce Springsteen, who’s also interviewed, gushes about how influential The Band was to him as a musician.

But just like many other famous bands that broke up, The Band’s demise came down to egos and drugs. The way Robertson tells it, he was the driving force in the band for many years, as the chief songwriter and as the member most likely to hold things together, even though the drug addictions of Helm, Manuel and Danko were tearing the band apart. Robertson says that Helm went from being someone who swore he would never do heroin to being perhaps the most hardcore heroin addict of the three.

And what about keyboardist/saxophonist Hudson? He’s described in the documentary as sweet and shy and the least likely one in the band to cause trouble. Unfortunately, viewers won’t hear his perspective in this documentary. According to the production notes, “Once Were Brothers” director Roher spent a weekend interviewing Hudson on-camera, but that footage didn’t make the final cut.

Roher comments in the production notes about filming Hudson for the documentary: “He played music for me, and we had an amazing time together, but for reasons that are difficult to discuss, it soon became apparent we couldn’t use the footage. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to meet with him and shoot that interview. In the end, though, I understood that we had to find another way to add his voice to the documentary.”

Meanwhile, in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Robertson had this to say about why Hudson isn’t in the documentary: “Garth is a recluse and he doesn’t talk. He has a health issue. I don’t think it would be respectful to Garth to show that he is not feeling that well, and to not be able to show him in a shining light.”

Robertson says in the film that because he was the first member of The Band to get married and start a family during the height of The Band’s fame, he had a different lifestyle and perspective than the other members of The Band (namely, Helm, Danko and Manuel), who were living the lives of wild and single rock stars. And because Robertson was the most business-minded member of the group, it caused a wedge between him and the other members of the band.

In the years after The Band’s breakup, Helm would bitterly complain in interviews about business and legal disagreements that he had with Robertson, who gave his blessing for Helm, Danko and Manuel to continue as The Band without him after the original lineup broke up. In the “Once Were Brothers” documentary, Robertson says one of his biggest regrets is that he never fully reconciled with Helm before his death in 2012. Helm wrote his own memoir (1993’s “This Wheel’s on Fire”) and was the subject of the 2010 documentary “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,” so his perspective is worth looking into for people who want his side of the story.

The documentary makes it clear that Robertson was no clean-living angel during his time in The Band and after the breakup. He openly admits that he also abused drugs and alcohol over the years. However, Robertson was never addicted, according to his ex-wife Dominique Robertson, who’s currently an addiction counselor and who was married to Robbie Robertson from 1967 to 1997. In the documentary, Dominque Robertson also recalls harrowing incidents, when the The Band lived near each other in upstate New York, of Helm and Danko wrecking their cars because they were driving while intoxicated.

Robertson glosses over a lot of his drug use in the documentary with vague and brief comments about his experiences with drugs, whereas there are vivid descriptions of how drugs (especially heroin) were behind the downward spirals of Helm, Manuel and Danko. The way Robertson tells it, he grew increasingly frustrated with their tardiness and what he describes as their eventual sloppy musicianship, while he remained the responsible workaholic who was holding the band together, even though he was abusing drugs and alcohol too. You get the impression that Robertson is embellishing his role as the noble protagonist of this story, and that all the blame shouldn’t be placed on Helm, Manuel and Danko for ruining The Band. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

By making Robertson the hero of this story, because he says he tried to save The Band, the documentary by default makes Helm, Manuel and Danko look like the selfish “screw-ups” and unintentional quasi-villains. It feels a bit like an insulting pile-on about people who aren’t alive to defend themselves or tell their sides of the story in this movie. It’s too bad that this documentary doesn’t have Hudson’s perspective as the only other surviving member of The Band’s original lineup.

At any rate, Robertson has made it clear in this documentary and in several interviews he’s done over the years that The Band’s original lineup probably would’ve kept going if not for the drug addictions, and he was the one who chose to pull the plug on the original lineup and walk away.

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, who’s been Robertson’s close friend for decades, is also interviewed. He shares some great behind-the-scenes stories about directing “The Last Waltz,” the 1978 concert documentary that chronicled The Band’s final performance with the original lineup on November 25, 1976. The concert, which took place in San Francisco, also had guest stars such as Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Morrison.

Of course, there are clips from “The Last Waltz,” which are among the highlights of “Once Were Brothers.” It just goes to show how “The Last Waltz” is such a great concert film when scenes from the movie are some of the best parts of another documentary about Robertson and The Band. In fact, “The Last Waltz” performance of “The Night They Drove All Dixie Down” is used during the closing credits of “Once Were Brothers.”

Overall, director Roher made excellent choices in the archival footage and how the music was edited in the film. Although Robertson’s solo career (including his work as a film composer) is mentioned, the filmmakers made the wise decision to put the movie’s focus primarily on The Band.

Roher (who says he begged and pleaded to direct this documentary because he loves Robbie Robertson and The Band so much) approaches the subject matter like the superfan that he admits he is. The people who are in this movie seem to be only those who were approved by Robertson. A little more investigative journalism would have given this documentary a more well-rounded variety of perspectives.

Ultimately though, the music and talent of Robertson and The Band are the real attractions for this movie. And in that respect, this documentary is a crowd-pleaser.

Magnolia Pictures released “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.