Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — Truth Or Whitewash?

I recently saw Once We Were Brothers:Robbie Robertson and The Band, in a theater, and given the givens, I hopeit will be placed on one of the TV streaming services soon.  I know it’s due to air on Canada’s Cravenetwork but not sure when.

I feel funny writing a blog without firstacknowledging what we are all going through together trying to stem off theCoronavirus.  I have some of my ownthoughts, positive even in the face of all this, that I will share with you atthe end of this review.

I left the movie theater feeling weird.  Something, or some things, just didn’t feel right about this film. Not that you shouldn’t see it… you should.  Some parts are incredibly fascinating, there’s some very important history here that needed to be documented, and I learned a lot.  But, even before the movie started, I was wondering why the title of this film was, Once We Were Brothers: “Robbie Robertson” and The Band? 

The film is inspired by Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony: A Memoir. So fair enough, I guess we should be ready for this documentary to be about Robertson’s life and his take on The Band.

But in this documentary, the point is madeover and over and over again that the soul and beauty of The Band is the factthat the magic was created equally, by all the members.  It was a true collaboration, andone like no other.

In the film Bruce Springsteen states, “There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts.  Simply the name, The Band, that was it.”

Similarly, Eric Clapton disbands Cream after he hears Music from Big Pink.  He longs for a real band, a real brotherhood of collaboration where each member intertwines with one another, seamlessly, to make something bigger than all of them.  He actually visits Woodstock where the band is living in the big pink house to see if they want a rhythm guitarist. 

“Come on, let’s jam,” Clapton saysexcitedly.   

They reply, “We don’t do that.”  Clapton realizes, “Hey wait a minute, this isa songwriting outfit.”

When you see the history of The Band laid out, first as a back up band for Ronnie Hawkins, and then as the back up band for Bob Dylan, you begin to understand why there was never a true frontman in The Band.  No one needed to step up to fill that role because there was already someone in place.  It also gives us a glimpse into their natural formation of a group blending together as one, weaving their talents with no particular member standing out.  This, obviously on purpose, as no one was going to upstage any star they were working for.

There is a funny part about them backingBob Dylan.  This was when Bob switchedfrom the acoustic folk sound to going electric with a more rock feel.  The story goes that Bob thought he’d havemore power with a small group backing him and beefing up to electricinstruments seemed like a natural evolution. In Bob’s documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, Bob states, “…It waselectric but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s modernized just because it’selectric.  Country music was electrictoo.”

Anyway, Robertson says, “…Although Bobthought this was a good idea, his fans didn’t think it was a good idea at all!”  He talks about being booed at every show they played, both here andabroad.  In the film Bob tells them, “…Whateverhappens, don’t stop playing.”  He alsostates the obvious.  If the audiencewishes he’d still be sticking with straight folk music, “…I don’t understandhow fast they are buying up all the tickets!” Bob going electric and all the booing is, of course, legendaryhistory.  But it’s cool to see it on filmbecause it shows you how brave it was for Bob to keep going, to keep followinghis vision, to keep leading the way.  Italso shows how “gallant” (per Bob), The Band was for sticking with him throughall of it.  It does get funny whenRobertson states in so many words, “Let me get this straight, you rehearse, andthen go out and play all of these songs, only to get booed every single night?Strange way to make a buck.”

When the guys decide to go on their own and live in a house together (the Big Pink house in Woodstock), they are able to stretch out both mentally and musically, they discover parts of themselves they never knew they had.  Not only is each able to play multiple instruments, but they have a vocal blend that creates a totally unique sound.

And that’s how all of us discovered The Band and their music.  Not unlike The Beatles, we knew the names of each player, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm, who arguably became the best known of the group for his lead vocals on some of their biggest songs.  Indeed, in the film, Taj Mahal states, if there was an American Beatles, this, would be them.

One of the most fascinating things in thismovie is a glimpse into the songwriting process of both Bob Dylan and RobbieRobertson.  You see Bob come over to the pinkhouse with his typewriter and some song ideas. The Band and he begin to play songs, some of which will become ideas forfuture famous Bob Dylan songs.  But fornow, a lot of the lyrics are just placeholders, dumb rhymes just stringingwords together.  In one, what will become,“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” there is a verse,

Now, look here dear Sue
You best feed the cats
The cats need feedin’
You’re the one to do it
Get your hat, feed the cats
You ain’t goin’ nowher

Most of us are overwhelmed by the genius ofBob Dylan.  Here we see a more mortalside–yep, just a bunch of words strung together in rhyme.  Of course, he goes on to craft his songs intosome of the greatest works ever written, but we discover he is human after all.

Robertson reminds us that the best way towrite is to write what you know.  But howto get that process started?  Sometimesit’s as simple as looking into the sound hole of your Martin Guitar to see thatit’s made in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  That’s how the song, “The Weight” began.  “I pulled into Nazareth…” Then all of thecharacters he knew just came to him and the song fell naturally out of theguitar.

The Band
The Band: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Copyright: David Gahr. Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

The film often returns to the overall theme of The Band becoming true brothers and the important role each played.  And for me, this is where the film gets into trouble.  While I appreciate Robbie Robertson’s individual history, if you keep telling me how great these guys were and how important they were, why don’t you tell us more about their lives, as well?  If, The Band, is as great as you say, and deserves a true documentary, why not spend the time to enshrine each individual member?

Another thing that seems weird is the way the story is told by Robbie.  He seems to be performing, over-acting, and disingenuous–I don’t buy it, I don’t believe him.  Having his ex-wife Dominique tell a good part of the story adds credibility and is a nice touch, but again, we only get to hear their side of the story. 

There was a big brouhaha some years ago about Robbie supposedly stealing all the publishing rights from the other Band members.  The story goes that most of the other members were unaware that publishing credits were an extra source of income for a writer of a song, beyond touring and making a portion of record sales.  When the album The Band came out, the guys were shocked to see their names only mentioned on one or two songs, while Robbie was credited on all 12.  Perhaps Robbie wrote most of the lyrics but the guys felt they’d contributed so many great ideas that helped bring the songs to life that they deserved to be credited as well. 

Trusting Robbie to do the right thing, workingwith their manager Albert Grossman at the time, proved to be a bad move.  Robbie tried to gloss over the situationtelling the guys that the money situation would all “even out” because muchmore money would be coming in via a recording studio that was going to be builtby Albert in Bearsville, a hamlet in Woodstock. Robbie told them they would all be partners and share in the profits,but clearly, he knew what he was doing when he chose the final credits to beput on the album.  And apparently,Levon’s caution that music business deals like this can ruin a band, and hisappeal to Robbie that the guys should be treated equally as brothers,especially having gone through so much together, fell on deaf ears.

This part is not covered in the film, only that Levon and some of the others were apparently extremely upset and thought they deserved more of the writing credits, or at least, more of a fair share of the money made on the songs.

Robbie places someone in the film to explainthat he, Robbie, wrote the songs and lessens the others’ contributions by definingthem as only, “arrangements.”  While thismay be true on paper, we don’t get to hear Levon’s or any other Band member’s sideof the story.   Only that Levon and othermembers of The Band succumbed to alcoholism and heroin, and that led to Levon,“…not wanting to understand the truth.” The problem here is that there are much larger truths that aren’tcovered in the film that no one seems to want to talk about.

First of all, Robbie may have written the basicwords for the songs, but bringing songs to life is another story.  The guys contributed so much to the melodies,chord changes, instrumentation, timing and tempos, that clearly, it took thewhole Band to create these works. Remember Eric Clapton’s quote, what he saw was a songwriting “outfit,” ateam effort.

Because I have friends who are close to thesituation, I know some personal things that went down that not too many othersknow, and would not repeat in these pages. But suffice to say, there were more reasons other than businessdiscrepancies for Levon Helm to be as mad as he was at Robbie Robertson.  To whitewash all of this and simply blame thebreakup on drugs and alcohol alone, painting Levon in a bad light, does a bigdisservice to Levon and all the other members of The Band.  The worst part is, Levon, nor any of theothers, aren’t there to defend themselves—we are getting the Robbie Robertsonversion of the story.  He’s the one thatmade the film, so he’s the one who gets to tell it.

Perhaps Robertson needs to remember the story this way for his own peace of mind. Whoknows, but somehow I came out of that movie feeling there was so much more totell.

The story ends with footage from The Last Waltz.  It’s stunning and it made me want to watch that movie again.

Despite my overall feelings I encourage youto see the film—it’s very worthwhile in so many ways. 

This is a good time to repeat one of my all-time favorite quotes from Bruce Springsteen, “Trust the art, not the artist.”  So it is, with this film.

Until next time, be smart and stay safe,


©Paul Rappaport 2020

PS. In these challenging times I would like to offer what I see as some positive silver linings.  The spread of the Coronavirus is forcing us to realize that we are, indeed, connected to one another globally and that we must all work together to solve the world’s larger problems.  The front page of the New York times recently showed how pollution from human activity has rapidly dissipated due to our temporary shutdown—most notably over China.  I imagine many people there are seeing blue skies and clouds for the first time in years.  Perhaps they want to find a way to keep that. 

I believe a shutdown of this magnitude forces us to stop and reflect more on the importance of community and family.  Furthermore, we may make some future changes in the way we live based on what we learn from living differently.  What if all this working from home proves to be beneficial.  Perhaps we will find ourselves having to come into an office fewer days a week, reducing more traffic and pollution, and also retrieving some more personal time.  Perhaps those that aren’t yet on board with trying to stem global warming will now believe more in science—science isn’t left wing or right wing, it has no political agenda, it’s just plain facts. 

I am beginning to see people figuring out how to help one another through these difficult times.  Yep, it’s pretty scary but sometimes tragedy on this level brings out the best in us human beings.  

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