Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

I should have paid more attention to the sub-title of this film, and then perhaps I wouldn’t have been mildly surprised that it only really told the story of The Band up to The Last Waltz. I don’t know why I thought that it might give some consideration to the various members’ solo careers, the 80s reunion (sans Robertson) and the sad deaths of both Richard Manuel and Rick Danko – but I did. I wasn’t disappointed in the actual film, but it’s clear that there’s more of the story yet to be told.

That said, very few of us really want to dwell on the details of that story, so it’s to director Daniel Roher’s credit that he leaves it out of this film.

The other aspect of the film’s title that slightly misled me is the word brothers. I assumed this film would focus on all five members as a band of brothers, but instead the focus is on the close relationship between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. This is the relationship that soured after The Last Waltz, and remained unresolved at the time of Helm’s death from cancer.

Christ this is a tragic story, but essential viewing if you love The Band. And if you love The Band and therefore watch this film, you will end up in tears.

The comments under any YouTube videos of The Band will sooner or later (usually sooner) turn to some dickhead singing Levon’s praises while pouring scorn on Robbie Robertson. It’s a tiresome narrative with strange echoes of the one about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. One person is no longer around to argue the point, and the survivor is left in a no-win situation, with a dignified silence the only possible move.

In this film, Taj Mahal calls them ‘America’s Beatles’, a throwaway line that sticks in your head, and the more you think about it the more apposite the description seems. Three lead vocalists; a group that was greater than the sum of its parts; a leading member whose drug use diminished his contribution; another leading member who picked up the slack and kept the group going for two or three years longer than they otherwise might have managed.

Yes, Robbie Robertson is the Paul McCartney of The Band, and the disrespect he gets from so-called fans is undeserved and out of proportion to his supposed sins. The fact is, as uncomfortable as it might be for some to realise, that without him there’s nothing. Almost certainly nothing, or close to it, after the eponymous Brown Album. As various members are sleeping off a drug torpor or driving cars into trees and ditches, Robbie Robertson is getting up in the morning and writing songs. Some good, some indifferent, some great. 

Without Robertson’s impetus and the live work it led to (and the relationship with Bob Dylan), The Band were almost certainly done by 1971. That they survived long enough to produce Northern Lights/Southern Cross (which contains at least three of their greatest songs) is a small miracle. And then The Last Waltz, which we’ve spoken about before.

Robbie Robertson spins a good yarn (what do you want him to do, stutter?), and of course this is his film, but it’s respectful towards the others and especially tender on the subject of Levon. Robertson is notably silent as Levon’s grievances are aired; it’s all he could do really.

So here they are. America’s Beatles, and their story is as compelling as our Beatles. I’ve said before that the story of our Beatles is by now a national myth, something akin to the story of King Arthur and his knights; and so it is with The Band, except in their case they are surprisingly overlooked. Sure, they’re loved by musicians and fans of that particular type of music, but most regular punters have barely heard of them.

It really is very strange. Perhaps people need to see this film.

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