Review: ‘Navalny,’ starring Alexei Navalny

April 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexei Navalny in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Navalny”

Directed by Daniel Roher

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in Russia, Germany and Austria, the documentary film “Navalny” features an all-white group of political workers, journalists, investigators and family members who are connected in some way to Russian activist/politician Alexei Navalny.

Culture Clash: Navalny, who has been an outspoken critic/opponent of Russian president Valdimir Putin, launches an investigation to find out who poisoned Navalny in 2020, and he returns from exile to Russia, knowing that he is certain to be imprisoned. 

Culture Audience: “Navalny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international politics, corruption and charismatic public figures.

Alexei Navalny and Maria Pevchikh in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Although the story of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny has been widely reported in the news, the documentary “Navalny” is a wild and intriguing look at what went on behind the scenes when he tried to find out who poisoned him in 2020. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Rohrer, “Navalny” (which was filmed from 2018 to 2021) gives an up-close-and-personal view of Navalny and people in his inner circle, through interviews and other candid footage. It’s not only an enthralling story of an aspiring Russian politician but it’s also a gripping exposé of a Russian government’s response to outspoken critics. “Navalny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and the Festival Favorite Award.

Navalny (who founded the Russian-based group Anti-Corruption Foundation) has no shortage of passion for the causes that he believes in, but he also has no shortage of ego. There are moments when he acts like he’s a rock star of Russian politics. While the Vladimir Putin-led Russian government portrays Navalny as a traitorous villain, and others see Navalny as a heroic martyr, what emerges in this documentary is a portrait of someone is who neither as dastardly nor as noble as some of the labels that have been thrust upon him. He comes across as shrewd, charismatic and hungry for power so that he can carry out what he says is his agenda: bringing true democracy and more equality to the people of Russia, especially the underprivileged.

These platitudes are often given by people who want to be in political leadership roles. But Navalny—an attorney who has never held an elected political office in the Russian federal government—claims that he really is interested in politics for all the right reasons. At the time this documentary was filmed, he was the leader of the Russia of the Future party. Navalny’s past attempts to run for various political offices have been interrupted by his numerous arrests. The documentary briefly mentions the controversy of his past association with anti-immigrant, white Russian national groups, whom Navalny now denounces. He says his past alignment with these bigoted groups was to open a dialogue with them.

As a political opponent to Russian president Putin, Navalny became very popular, as evidenced by his ability to draw huge crowds and by gaining millions of followers on social media. But a plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20, 2020, changed all of that momentum, when Navalny was poisoned with Novichok and nearly died while on that plane, which made an emergency landing in Omsk so he could get medical treatment. An investigation determined that Navalny had been poisoned in Novosibirsk, Russia, before he boarded the plane.

In the documentary, Navalny says that before this attempted murder happened to him, he thought that the more famous he became, the safer he would be from any dangerous attack because it would be made more public. “I was wrong,” he deadpans in the movie. In the beginning of the documentary, director Roher can be heard asking Navalny, “If you were killed, what message would you like to leave behind for the Russian people?” Navalny replies, “Oh, come on, Daniel. No way. It’s like a movie for the case of my death. Let it be movie No. 2. Let’s make a thriller out of this movie.”

Indeed, this documentary has many twists and turns into Navalny’s personal investigation into who poisoned him. This attempted murder was a crime that he always suspected was ordered by Putin. What was revealed in this investigation has already been reported, but seeing it unfold in this documentary is nothing short of fascinating.

Along the way, various people are featured in the documentary who are close to Navalny, including Navalny’s loyal wife Yulia Navalnaya and daughter Dasha Navalnaya, who was in her late teens at the time this documentary was filmed. Dasha comments on the poisoning of her father: “It was surreal. It was like [something in] a book.”

Later in the documentary, Dasha says of the burden that her father’s notoriety has placed on the family: “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve thought about what I would do if my dad was killed.” The movie also shows Yulia’s successful efforts to get her husband out of the hospital where he was taken after being poisoned, because the hospital had “more police and government agents than doctors.” He was safely transferred to a hospital in Germany.

“Navalny” gives an insightful look at the employees in Alexei Navalny’s trusted inner circle. Press secretary Kira Yarmysh is often the voice of reason among some of the chaos. Chief of staff Leonid Volkov is the steadfast right-hand man who carries out the leader’s commands but also has to make split-second decisions on his own. Maria Pevchikh, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s chief investigator, is fiercely protective of her boss and sometimes combative. During the investigation, Pevchikh has to compromise and reluctantly agrees not share certain information with Alexei Navalny, so as not to taint his bias as a victim.

Also crucial to the investigation is a group based in Vienna, Austria, called Bellingcat, led by chief investigator Christo Grozev, who calls Bellingcat a bunch of “data nerds.” It was through Bellingcat’s sleuthing using technology (and some good old-fashioned phone calls) that essential clues were uncovered. The documentary also includes a few journalists (such as CNN’s Tim Lister and Der Spiegel’s Fidelius Schmid) who also investigated the poisoning.

“Navalny” is essential viewing for anyone interested in international politics. Viewers who see this movie can expect to go through a rollercoaster of emotions. And although the investigation does yield answers, “Navalny” is the type of documentary that concludes with a very “to be continued” tone, because events in Alexei Navalny’s life and in Russian politics are still making history.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Fathom Events will release “Navalny” in U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on April 11 and April 12, 2022. CNN and CNN+ will premiere “Navalny” on April 24, 2022. HBO Max will premiere the movie on May 26, 2022.

UPDATE: “Navalny” will be re-released in select U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement, from February 24 to March 2, 2023.

February 16, 2024 UPDATE: Alexei Navalny died in a Russian prison on February 16, 2024. He was 47. Russian officials claim that he died after losing consciousness from feeling sick. Several of Nalvany’s loved ones and associates have gone on record to say that they think he was murdered.

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, Dominique 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.

2019 Toronto International FIlm Festival: ‘Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band’ documentary selected as opening-night film

July 18, 2019

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” (Photo by Elliott Landy, courtesy of TIFF)

The following is a press release from the Toronto International Film Festival:

TIFF Co-Heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente announced today that the World Premiere of  Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band​, ​Daniel Roher’​s touching ​tale of Robertson’s young life  and the creation of one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music, The Band, ​will be the  Opening Night Gala Presentation for the 44th Toronto International Film Festival​®  ​on Thursday, September 5,  2019, at Roy Thomson Ha​ll. The premiere marks the first time a Canadian-made documentary opens the Toronto  International Film Festival.

The documentary film, directed by​ Roher (​”Ghosts of Our Forest​”), ​inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir,  Testimony​, tells the moving story of Robertson’s personal journey as he overcame adversity and found  camaraderie alongside the four other men who would become his brothers in music, and who together made  their mark on music history.

“Once Were Brothers​: Robbie Robertson and The Band”​ ​blends rare archival footage, photography, iconic songs,  and interviews with many of Robertson’s friends and collaborators, including Martin Scorsese, Bruce  Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, and Ronnie Hawkins.

“This is one of Toronto’s great stories of a hometown hero,” said Bailey, Artistic Director & Co-Head of TIFF.  “From his early years in this city, to the inspiration he took from life on the Six Nations reserve, to the impact  he’s had on generations of music lovers, Robertson emerges in Roher’s film as a truly Canadian-made  superstar. In our first year as TIFF’s Co-Heads, Joana and I are thrilled to open the Festival with a Canadian  story that speaks to the world.”

“This stirring documentary takes audiences on a musical journey and shows us just what it takes to build one  of the most significant groups in rock history,” said Vicente, Executive Director & Co-Head of TIFF. “Robertson  is a Canadian music icon, and his moving story of persistence and passion is the perfect way to begin Festival  2019 for both Cameron and me. We’re eager to share the excitement of Opening Night with Toronto’s film  lovers, and audiences can expect some very special guests joining us to help celebrate.”    “Robertson’s tale is a remarkable reminder of how vision, ambition, and hard work can empower one’s wildest  dreams,” said ​Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band​ director Daniel Roher. “Robbie took a  chance on me, and I will be forever grateful that he rolled the dice on a kid from Toronto to helm his story.  Opening the Toronto International Film Festival is beyond some wildest dreams of my own and I am thankful  for everyone who believed in me.”

“I’m so tremendously honored that the premiere of​ Once Were Brothers,​ inspired by my memoir ​Testimony​,  will be the opening movie at TIFF this year, in my hometown of Toronto, Ontario, Canada,” said Robertson.

In a career spanning six decades, Robbie Robertson has continued to create as a songwriter, producer,  performer, actor, author, and film composer. His raw talent thrust him into the spotlight and put him at the center of a cultural revolution, backing Bob Dylan on his notorious 1966 electric world tour and later  collaborating with Dylan on the groundbreaking ​Basement Tapes​, then as a member of The Band, inventing the  musical hybrid known as Americana with songs like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,​”​ and “The Night They  Drove Old Dixie Down.” Of late, Robertson has been working on a new solo album, due this fall.

Made in conjunction with Imagine Documentaries, White Pine Pictures, Bell Media Studios and Universal  Music Canada’s Shed Creative, the project is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Imagine Entertainment  Chairmen Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein for Imagine Documentaries; White  Pines Pictures’ president Peter Raymont, and COO Steve Ord; Bell Media president, Randy Lennox; Jared  Levine; Michael Levine; Universal Music Canada president and CEO Jeffrey Remedios; and Shed Creative’s managing director Dave Harris. The film was produced by Andrew Munger, Stephen Paniccia, Sam Sutherland  and Lana Belle Mauro.    Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band​ will stream on Crave in Canada later this year.

The 44th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5–15, 2019.    TIFF announces more Gala and Special Presentations on July 23.

Festival ticket packages start at $110. Purchase packages online at ​tiff.net/tickets​,​ by phone (416.599.TIFF or  1.888.599.8433), or in person at TIFF Bell Lightbox until August 11 while quantities last.

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About TIFF 

TIFF is a charitable cultural organization whose mission is to transform the way people see the world through  film. An international leader in film culture, TIFF projects include the annual Toronto International Film Festival  in September; TIFF Bell Lightbox, which features five cinemas, major exhibitions, and learning and  entertainment facilities; and innovative national distribution program Film Circuit. The organization generates  an annual economic impact of $189 million CAD. TIFF Bell Lightbox is generously supported by contributors  including Founding Sponsor Bell, the Province of Ontario, the Government of Canada, the City of Toronto, the  Reitman family (Ivan Reitman, Agi Mandel and Susan Michaels), The Daniels Corporation and RBC. For more  information, visit tiff.net.

The Toronto International Film Festival is generously supported by Lead Sponsor Bell, Major Sponsors RBC,  L’Oréal Paris and Visa, and Major Supporters the Government of Ontario, Telefilm Canada, and the City of  Toronto.    This film is eligible for the Grolsch People’s Choice Award.    The Gala programme is made possible through the generous​ ​sponsorship of Fairmont.

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