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Critics' Choice
RE-TELLING THE BAND'S STORY
2/21/20

 

Robbie Robertson is the last man standing from the group of four Canadians and a Southerner who demonstrated in the 1970s how to take decades of American music and distill it into one fragrant broth.

As such, he gets to tell the story of The Band—yes, Garth Hudson is with us as well, but he’s always been the quiet one—in Daniel Roher’s documentary Once Were Brothers, which opens today in Los Angeles and New York.  

Roher and Robertson take us through The Band’s beginnings, their backup roles with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the move to Woodstock and their collective ambitions as musicians and songwriters. Then there’s the stories about drugs and how the hard stuff took down one of the most vital acts in American rock & roll. Robertson avoided the narcotics; the others indulged heavily, we’re told.

The story is told with spectacular clips—one shot of a stadium show gives you an indication of how big they were in the mid-1970s despite a lack of hit singles—and the talking heads recall how Robertson. & Co. were as important as The Beatles. Eric Clapton even says he wanted to be their guitarist.

Robertson’s buddy Martin Scorsese made one of the greatest concert films ever, The Last Waltz, and basically told Robbie’s side of the story in that 1978 masterpiece. Robertson told his story in book from four years ago in Testimony, which is largely the script for Once Were Brothers.

The break-up of The Band here is far more acrimonious and troubling in the Once Were Brothers telling than The Last Waltz’s “gosh we’re tired—let’s do a show and hang it up” fable. Robertson’s bandmate Levon Helm told his side of the story in a book; Rick Danko and Richard Manuel never did.

Fortunately the music speaks for itself: the Capitol package celebrating the 50th anniversary of their self-titled second album—the one we called “the brown one” back in the day—is a glorious reminder of their uniqueness, spirit and harmony. That package, with essays,  their Woodstock performances and photos, is only a chapter of The Band, but it’s a story full of promise and hope, the one many fans of The Band should chose to re-live again and again.