Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film on Friday, February 21.
Robbie Robertson has surely told all these stories before, firing off well-worn chestnuts and crystal-clear recollections with a lived-in charm throughout Daniel Roher’s “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” And why shouldn’t the Canadian native have plenty of stories to tell? After all, he was on the forefront of, as best he can tell, three different musical revolutions, nearly all of them involving the “brothers” of the groundbreaking Americana rockers The Band. But if Robertson looks relaxed and practiced during his numerous talking head appearances in Roher’s latest documentary, it’s easy to understand why: there’s no one left to dispute his recollection of decades of work and relationships.
He can keep telling the stories because he’s the only one left to tell them.
Of the five original members of The Band, three are dead, including Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. The only other surviving member, Garth Hudson, gets little screen time, despite a myriad of enthralling archival footage, is described once as “shy,” and clearly had little interest in appearing in Roher’s film. That leaves the proceedings to Robertson, who is able to self-mythologize to a worrying degree, with no one (including Roher) attempting to challenge his recollection of events.
Bolstered by an enviable array of talking heads (from Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison to Band obsessive and executive producer Martin Scorsese), the history of The Band energetically unspools, with Robertson gamely holding the center. Still, even Band neophytes who might not know so many of its members have passed away over the years will be unable to dismiss the early, gaping holes. Robertson has every right to tell his version of events, but by the time a second talking head is introduced as a “friend of Levon Helm” or Roher leans on archival interview footage of the drummer and singer clearly never meant for his film, it grates.
Robertson, a deeply talented musician and songwriter who is still working today, is a fascinating subject, but the really compelling stuff is lingering just out of the frame. Without a more well-rounded selection of voices (everyone onscreen agrees Robertson is a genius, a visionary, the undisputed leader of the group even decades on) or a more critical-minded director to give the film perspective, Robertson is free to obscure the bigger questions and deeper meanings, opting for self-mythologizing over self-reflection. (He’s the kind of guy who thought “The Band” was an “unpretentious” name for the group, a baffling interpretation.)
Without anyone pushing back, it’s easy for Robertson to take credit for all of The Band’s best ideas: starting their own group post-Ronnie Hawkins, bringing back Helm after he quit during a dismal tour with Bob Dylan, moving to Woodstock, moving to Malibu, hooking up with David Geffen, reuniting with Dylan, and ending it all with the iconic smash concert known as The Last Waltz. Another Robertson idea? Turning “The Last Waltz” into a documentary and bringing in Martin Scorsese to film the whole damn thing.
On occasion, real emotion does break through. It’s clear that the dissolution of The Band was extremely painful to Robertson (his wife, too, who later became a therapist specializing in addiction, presumably because of what she witnessed with the rest of the guys). While he and other talking heads don’t attempt to place blame on the rest of the group (addiction as a disease is frequently mentioned, a welcome change in a rock and roll doc), that period of history is passed over mostly as a way to further illuminate how Robertson stood apart. While the rest of the dudes were off doing heroin, Robertson was planning for the next stage of his life, which just so happened to include a totally out of the blue call from Geffen, looking for a new (solo) star. It’s reductive and offensive, and it only gets worse.
The dead can’t talk, and “Once Were Brothers” would be a very different film if they could. But while cinema can’t (yet) resurrect the dead, Roher doesn’t even attempt to interrogate the massive gaps in his film and Robertson’s narrative. The inevitable collapse of the group isn’t overtly addressed until the last 10 minutes, quickly explained away as simply stemming from Helm’s belief that he deserved more recognition for his work, which is one way to gloss over a decades-long battle over songwriting credits and big buck royalties.
As “Once Were Brothers” begins to wind down, Robertson muses that they were always going to come back together after The Last Waltz, and everyone else simply “forgot” to make that happen (maybe Robertson also “forgot” that they did make another album after the show, or that the rest of the guys did eventually get back together, without him). Such gaps in perspective would be reckless if they weren’t so transparent: this is Robbie Robertson’s movie, his version of the story, and if you want to know more about what Levon and Richard and Rick and Garth thought about any of it, that’s simply not a load Roher and his film are interested in carrying.
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” will open the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.