57 Channels (and nothin’ on): Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Göteborg Film Festival is the largest film festival in the Nordic countries. Films are presented during a ten-day festival (in 2020 from 23 January to 3 February), creating a great banquet serving audiences nearly 450 films from some 80 countries. Although I’m born and raised in Göteborg and the film festival is almost as old as I am, this is the first time I’ve attended. I’ve bought tickets to see five films and I’m very excited.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band (2019) is a Canadian music documentary. Based on former band member Robbie Robertson’s autobiography Testimony: a Memoir, it portrays the story of the Canadian rock group The Band.

Robertson’s narration begins with the story of his own musical career, which began early. Only 15 years old he wrote songs and soon became a member of the Hawks, the backing band of rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins. Drummer/singer Levon Helm was already a member and they became close friends.

The Hawks continued to tour the United States and Canada, adding Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson to the line-up. In 1965, they started collaborating with Bob Dylan and changed names to The Band. Later they found their own sound in a pink house outside Woodstock.

The five members of the legendary rock group were like brothers. However, in the mid-1970s, after working together for 17 years, alcohol and heroin addiction cracked the group. Their last concert was on November 25th, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom (featured in Martin Scorcese’s documentary the Last Walz).

Apart from Robertson’s narrative, the film has an impressive record of interviewees, including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal. Bruce Springsteen highlights the uniqueness of The Band’s three world-class singers, and how they rocked the rock world with their first two records.

“There is no band that emphasizes becoming greater than the sum of its part than the Band” /Bruce Springsteen

I found this music documentary very interesting and beautifully done with lots of archive footage. However, towards the end it seems a bit one dimensional. It would have been interesting to hear the other band members’ view on the reason for disbanding the group. Robertson’s assumption is that they were merely taking a break to deal with the fatigue of the band and the abuse of alcohol and drugs of certain band members and that they “forgot” to get back together. He also mentions Helm’s opinion that he deserved more recognition for his work, and between the lines you see a battle over songwriting credits and big buck royalties and in the eyes Robertson there’s a hint of grief and disappointment.

Taking into account that three out of five original members are dead and the only other surviving member, Garth Hudson, doesn’t get (doesn’t want?) any screen time, there’s no one left to dispute Robertson’s side of The Band’s rise and fall.

It is true that the last concert featuring all the original members was The Last Walz, as mentioned earlier, but it’s not mentioned that the rest of the guys eventually got back together, without Robertson. They hit the road before losing Manuel to suicide in 1986 and Danko to heart failure in 1999.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is shown in cinemas from 21 February 2020.

3 comments

    1. In cinemas from February 21.
      The advantage of festivals is that you sometimes are able to see films before they are shown in the cinema.
      I just came home from watching 1917.

      Like

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