Producers: Andrew Munere, Stephen Paniccia, Sam Sutherland and Lana Belle Maura Director: Daniel Roher Cast: Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Taplin, Elliot Landy, David Geffen, John Simon, Dominique Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins and Van Morrison Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
This documentary about The Band, the rock group whose final concert Martin Scorsese filmed as “The Last Waltz” in 1976, has a distinguished pedigree: Scorsese is among the executive producers (and appears as an interviewee), and so are Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. In assembling the film, director Daniel Roher has followed the more conventional lead Grazer and Howard have taken in their documentary projects (e.g., “Pavarotti”) rather than take a more overtly extravagant Scorsese approach. That makes “Once Were Brothers” fairly safe and sedate—and almost hagiographic—but still interesting for all that.
In essence the picture is an autobiographical portrait of Robbie Robertson, with narration drawn largely from lengthy talking-head interviews with him, embellished with an array of archival materials, mostly stills and found footage, competently edited by Roher and Eamonn O’Connor. Robertson effectively covers his life from childhood to the present (he’s now in his mid-seventies), but his focus is on his time as one of the founders, as well as lead guitarist and primary songwriter, for The Band, which began in 1958 as The Hawks, a backup band for Ronnie Hawkins, and in the 1960s joined Bob Dylan on tour. After separating from Dylan and changing their name, they became one of the most popular and influential groups of the late sixties and early seventies.
Robertson’s recollections are only part of the story—there are also reminiscences by photographer Elliott Landy, producers John Simon and Jonathan Taplin and record mogul David Geffen, as well as Hawkins, Scorsese and Robertson’s wife Dominique—but it is Robertson who controls the narrative of the group’s often contentious history and the causes behind its breakup.
Drummer Levon Helm, keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko are all dead, of course, and surviving keyboardist Garth Hudson is conspicuously absent here, apart from the updates preceding the final credits. The one-sided character of the result will certainly irk some, who will consider it self-serving on Robertson’s (and even Scorsese’s) part.
One may also be put off by the comments offered by the parade of music celebrities Roher has assembled to offer encomia to the achievements and influence of The Band. Their panegyrics are certainly sincere, but one’s eyes may widen at their constant reiteration of the mantra that after some song or album, “things changed” and “would never be the same.” The abundance of revolutions on the American music scene over the period comes to seem exhausting, if not simply incredible.
Nonetheless so long as one is aware of the bias inherent in how the story of The Band is told here, it’s difficult not to appreciate Roher’s confident and skillful work, however one-sided it may be.