A songwriter and guitarist of uncommon skill who networked well and has spent most of the last fifty years burnishing his legend when he’s not been composing/supervising movie soundtracks for Martin Scorsese, Robbie Robertson makes an easy figure to mock*. Even the title of his film, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & The Band, betrays his self-importance and his penchant for self-mythologising.
But even for those of us find some of Robertson’s pronouncements self-regarding and pompous (this is a man who once promoted a solo album by proclaiming in all seriousness “I am the storyteller of the shadowlands”), the urge to prick his balloon has to be tempered by recognition of his accomplishments: his guitar playing and the three-dozen or so fantastic songs he wrote between 1968 and 1975.**
All of which is to say, I went into watching Once Were Brothers with a sense of what the film’s line would be, particularly on why The Band broke up in 1976, how The Last Waltz came to happen, and the rights and wrongs of Levon Helm’s subsequent bitterness regarding songwriting royalties and credits. While the film invited contributions from a couple of Levon’s friends and collaborators, it only brought in people who agreed with Robertson’s version of the story, so it ended up as a film with only one voice.
But that’s what I was expecting, so I found it an enjoyable watch, with those caveats. The best thing about the film is the extensive use of candid photos and home videos of Robertson and his bandmates in Woodstock, but also welcome was the testimony of Robertson’s former wife Dominique, who shared her husband’s mix of love for his colleagues, and exasperation towards the drug and alcohol abuse of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.*** Originally a journalist, in the mid-1980s, Dominique qualified as a pyschotherapist, specialising in addiction. This combination of professional pursuits makes her better qualified to tell The Band’s story than anyone, including her former husband, and her input was among the film’s strengths.
If you don’t go into this expecting a balanced account of The Band’s story, it’s hard to be disappointed by Once Were Brothers. As I say, I’m more amused than angered by Robertson’s tendency to self-promotion and practiced humble-bragging; as Katie Erbland observed in a savage IndieWire review, “He’s the kind of guy who thought “The Band” was an “unpretentious” name for the group.” Robertson’s had basically the same shtick since at least the time Scorsese interviewed him for The Last Waltz. Nonethless, it’s a bit of a shame that a more balanced film wasn’t made while Danko and Helm, at least, were still alive to tell their sides of the story.
Incidentally, still the best way to learn about The Band is to read Barney Hoskyns’s Across the Great Divide, which taught me a long time ago that one should love the group’s music while not taking their guitar player at his own estimation.
*My friend Nick Elvin and I have made a sport out of coming up with parody Robbie Robertson song titles for his solo albums. My favourites, all Nick’s, are Fellowship of the Road, Can’t Love for Love nor Money, and No Cards Left to Play, which all capture Robertson in his Somewhere Down the Crazy River mode.
**Not all the best material on Music from Big Pink is Robertson’s, of course, as Manuel figured more as a songwriter on that record, and there are three Dylan co-writes and a cover of Long Black Veil. But The Band is mostly Robertson, Northern Lights – Southern Cross is all Robertson, and other than Manuel’s lovely Sleeping, so are Stage Fright and Cahoots, though the latter has little to recommend it for me.
***Garth Hudson is frequently mentioned as a musical driving force but only heard from directly once, in a 25-year-old interview clip. Presumably he declined to be involved).