- 22 Oct 19
On the face of it, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is a film about one of the greatest bands in the history of rock ’n’ roll. But is it really? Here, we take a close look at the movie – with a cast that includes Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, David Geffen and Martin Scorsese among others – and come to a rather different conclusion. Main pic: © Elliott Landy
“My God, I started watching this, and I got completely hooked. I love this film!”
— Bob Dylan, upon seeing Once Were Brothers, as quoted by Robbie Robertson.
Robbie Robertson likes to tell his story of The Band. He’s done it in interviews, in his memoir Testimony (2016), on social media posts, and, now, in the movie Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019).
It feels inaccurate, somehow, to append that date of 2019; most of the footage is composed of images and film clips from 1943 to 1976, plus interviews done with music celebrities both recently and well in the past. Present-day interviews with Robertson and Ronnie Hawkins, for instance, are cheek-by-jowl with decades-old footage of Bob Dylan filmed for Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home (2005), or George Harrison or Levon Helm in 1995.
Once Were Brothers often seems more montage than movie, so much of it is constituted of 132 of Elliott Landy’s iconic photographs; Landy’s images are indeed the very bones of the film. What has been made at Robertson’s behest, and beautifully made by Daniel Rohrer with the powerful backing of Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard, is a personal project of substantial merit. It is, however, no documentary about The Band, despite the substantial clips of both interview and performance taken from Barbara and Gregory Hall’s The Band (1995), which is. It is an autobiographical film essay of Robertson’s, and should be viewed, and appreciated, as such.
This defining, and limiting, parameter is significant from the start, which is with Robertson plugging in his guitar that was “the beginning of it all for me” to the accompaniment of a little burst of feedback. We see him walking to work in a sleek professional space, with guitars neatly arranged, a lovely staircase with stained glass windows, gold records on the walls. He enters a full-service recording studio to work on a new song — although this movie focuses primarily on songs that are all over 43 years old.
Robertson has an interesting way of describing his songwriting from the start, too: “I stumbled onto this song ‘Once Were Brothers’, that really did, for me, zero in on The Band.” The song begins to play, swelling in lush production adds (at one point Robertson says it needs “more atmosphere”), the insistent refrain backed with a rudimentary drumbeat: “Once were brothers, brothers no more/ We lost our connection after the war/ There’ll be no revival, there’ll be no encore/ Once were brothers, brothers no more.”
NOT A DOCUMENTARY
The Band needs no introduction in this movie. Composed of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson, The Band made music under that name and with that lineup for just shy of a decade, from the late 1960s until the end of 1976. However, the five men had joined together as boys, in their teens and early twenties, in a backing band called The Hawks for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins.
Hawkins and Helm had come to Toronto from Arkansas in 1958. Swiftly, they tumbled into wild, brand-new music instead; in Helm’s words, from his 1993 memoir This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and The Story of The Band, “there was a huge void in rock and roll: Elvis was in the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee was in disgrace for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, Little Richard had joined the ministry, Conway had gone country, and Buddy Holly was dead.” Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks made it onto Steve Allen’s show and American Bandstand. They were one of the hottest bands in North America when a fifteen-year old kid who practiced his guitar for hours every day began hanging around their Toronto shows. Helm, who instantly liked him, recruited young Robbie Robertson for the band.
Once Were Brothers focuses narrowly on the relationship between Helm and Robertson — what both men, at different times, called brotherhood. The other members of The Band get very little screen time, whether in performance, images, or mention. If you want a movie featuring Richard Manuel’s passionate art and Rick Danko’s angel voice, and that fully acknowledges their contributions — and those of Garth Hudson, and of their neighbour and constant collaborator during the early Woodstock days, Bob Dylan — as writers and shapers of The Band’s songs, look elsewhere. Hudson, living principally in Woodstock and still performing from time to time, was not interviewed for this movie, though with Robertson he is the only other living member of the original Band.
Once Were Brothers can’t get into this story, though, without both encomia from other artists and a summary of rock and roll first. These moments are both foundational and enjoyable, put together from contemporary footage, interviews conducted in the past (Harrison; Dylan; Helm), and new ones done particularly for the film (Hawkins; Bruce Springsteen; Robbie’s ex-wife Dominique Robertson). Eric Clapton, long one of The Band’s biggest fans, says “I was in great awe of their brotherhood.” Springsteen speaks of “three of the greatest white singers in history” (Helm, Manuel, and Danko), and emphasises as the most important thing about The Band their “coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts.”
Taj Mahal confirms that “they were all about the music.” A swirl of clips of the great influences — Chuck Berry, Little Richard, B.B. King, and Jerry Lee Lewis — culminate in a photo of an adorable young teen with his guitar, which is a perfect example of how this movie is framed. Of 'Johnny B. Goode’, Springsteen says “it was a revolutionary moment.” Robertson calls it “my own personal big bang.” Notice the difference?
The impression that Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, and particularly Helm, made on Robertson when he first heard them live is something he describes movingly and passionately: “There was a guy playing drums who looked like he was fifteen years old, with white blond hair, and he was twirling sticks, and he was laughing and smiling, and he just seemed to glow in the dark. And his name was Levon Helm.”
Robertson remembers thinking, “this is the most amazing thing on the Planet Earth. After they played I just stood around. I wanted to help out in any way I could, to have this rub off on me, this music, this talent, this Southernness. I stuck to them like glue.” More rightly, perhaps, than he knows, Hawkins describes Helm and Robertson as being like “Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer” from the get-go.
To impress Hawkins, Robertson wrote two songs about which he talks in the movie, ‘Hey Boba Lou’ and ‘Someone Like You’. ‘Baby Jean’, co-written with Helm, was also included on Mr. Dynamo (1960), but it is not showcased here. Robertson was playing the guitar twelve hours a day, practicing and perfecting, and finally Hawkins let him in the band, telling him, according to Helm, “you’ll have more nookie than you can eat.”
In the movie, Hawkins makes this line “more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” Hawkins is in the movie to support Robertson’s story, though, not to tell his own. He gets details wrong, and it is odd that some major inaccuracies were not edited out, as when he states “Robbie’s real daddy was a Hebrew gangster….They killed him, they shot him on Yonge Street, I think.” Alexander Klegerman, Robertson’s father, was killed on June 30, 1946 at the age of 22. However, no one shot him. The Saskatchewan Leader Post for July 2, 1946, in a column devoted to the staggering 57 deaths during the Dominion Day weekend celebrations, reports that Alex Klegerman was “killed by a car as he was repairing a tire on the highway near Hamilton.” On 13 July, Henry Osmanchenko of Toronto, who had been driving without a permit and had fled the scene, was charged with manslaughter. However, this movie is not a documentary. Always remember that
After Helm’s dream of a performance of ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, filmed at Robertson’s Woodstock home in late 1969 or early 1970, the film flashes back into Robertson’s boyhood, in Toronto, and at home among his mother’s family on the Six Nations Reserve. Rosemarie Chrysler (Dolly) Robertson was of the Mohawk and Cayuga tribes, and often took her only child with her on visits. “I thought this was a magical place,” Robertson recalls. “When the sun started to go down, the instruments would come out….I would practice and practice. This is where I belong.” At 13, Robertson heard Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles. “Within weeks,” he says, “I was in my first band.”
At 15 Robertson was a songwriter. Sometimes Robertson is keen on describing his songwriting process, as in remembering those first songs he wrote for Ronnie Hawkins: he is detailed about shutting himself up in his room and working on them there. For other songs, his creative process is described blurrily at best. He uses more than once the concept of “stumbling” onto a song, depending on testimony from Hawkins and The Band’s former road manager, and later film producer, Jonathan Taplin, to substantiate himself as The Band’s songwriter. ‘The Weight’, surely The Band’s signature song, is a fascinating and complicating case in point.
Robertson told Marc Myers of the Wall Street Journal in November 2016 that he wrote ‘The Weight’ by himself in 1967 in Woodstock, during the Basement Tapes days. He cites Buñuel, Bergman, and the Bible as his inspirations, and says he typed the lyrics up because Dylan did: “I never saw him write anything with a pen or pencil.” However, in the movie, Dominique Robertson says that Robertson was constantly writing in little notebooks. And Dylan himself used tiny notebooks, most celebratedly for the songs of Blood On the Tracks (1975), but for years before and after, too. There are many of these notebooks from Dylan’s Woodstock days, when he was writing songs with Danko and Manuel — when, as Danko says in this movie, “Bob would come by every day for about a six, seven month period, and we’d get together every afternoon, six or seven days a week.”
Dylan did the album cover (featuring, as Barney Hoskyns has noted, not five musicians but six, adding himself to The Band) for the record upon which ‘The Weight’ appears, Music From Big Pink (1968). And yet Dylan never heard this particular song, Robertson avers in Once Were Brothers, until he himself played the already-complete ‘The Weight’ for Dylan: “I was very excited playing this record for Bob. He hadn’t heard a note of it. ‘The Weight’ comes on, he’s like, ‘wait a minute, who wrote that?’ and I said I [pause] I wrote that, and he said, ‘you wrote that?’ and I could just see the pride in his eyes.”
Even here, although his clear implication is that Dylan is proud of Robertson for having written the song, in an odd move Robertson shies away from specifying the exact source of Dylan’s pride. Some day it would be nice for music and literary scholars to be able to use Robertson’s original drafts of his finest songs to study their crafting and development. An unavoidable bottom line is the simple truth that Robertson has written nothing as well-known, beloved, or just plain as good, in the past four decades and a bit, as are the songs that went before.
Having toured as The Hawks between 1958 and 1963, the men who would later form The Band left Hawkins and came to New York in 1964. “When we left Ronnie, I wanted to be something original,” Robertson says. John Hammond, Jr. recorded with them and then recommended them to Bob Dylan, who soon hired them for his 1965 tour. There is no mention that at this time the band was known as Levon and The Hawks. Says Robertson, “Bob Dylan’s thing was like a detour. We’re hooking up with this guy, and he’s changing the course of music. He’s like the king of the folk movement, who now wants a rock and roll band… That’s not a bad thing to experience along the way.” Robertson speaks seriously of the way in which Dylan’s playing with The Band helped Dylan, and “expand[ed] his musical horizons” even as they were being booed nightly for playing rock and roll.
In a flashback about the same scene, Levon Helm is laughing: “Kids would break for the stage, cops were makin’ open field tackles out in front of the stage, and Bob had told us, whatever happens, just don’t stop playing.” In a clip from Dylan’s archives — and he has been generous to this project with those clips — Dylan first touches and then pulls away from fans flocking at his car’s windows: “Don’t pull my fingers. So long. Don’t boo me any more.”
Helm soon left this circus and returned to Arkansas, where he worked, among other jobs, on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. “Levon expressed to me that there was something in this whole world…that didn’t feel right to him,” Robertson says. “And I was much closer to Bob than the other guys were, and I don’t think Levon felt good about that either.”
Cut to a kaleidoscope of images of Bob and Robbie playing together; Robbie has adopted Dylan’s Ray-Bans. Of Helm’s departure from the band, which Robertson says Helm asked him to tell the others, Robertson says simply “He didn’t go anywhere without me.” The hurt is still in his voice and on his face as he goes on: “My heart was breaking. My partner, my brother, has left has gone. I don’t know how to do this without Levon, but I’m gonna have to figure it out.”
Mickey Jones played drums on the Dylan-and-his-band 1966 world tour. Robertson speaks well of Jones, but then sighs, and says “boy, they were tough shoes to fill. Levon left a big hole.” Jann Wenner speculates that The Band’s “being in the trenches with Bob on this fight probably reinforced their relationship.” Dylan, in footage shot long ago for No Direction Home, agrees: “The guys that were with me on that tour, ah, you know, we were all in it together, putting our heads in the lion’s mouth. I had to admire them or sticking it out with me, just for doing it in my book they were, you know, gallant knights for even… standing behind me.”
It was on this world tour, in Paris in 1966, that Robertson met a journalist from Montreal named Dominique Bourgeois. Robertson was smitten immediately, and as Robbie and Dominique reminisce about their early days together, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin and “Je t’aime/ Moi non plus” plays in the background (no matter that it was unwritten at the time). Dominique’s contemporary interview is the most interesting one recorded for Once Were Brothers, as her affection for the men in The Band and particularly Helm, and her clear sense of loss at the 1977 breakup, comes through. She came to New York and joined Robertson there, and naturally they followed Dylan up to Woodstock, at the invitation of Albert Grossman. Four of the men never left.
“Rick found us this ugly pink house. This is just what I’ve been dreaming about all these years. A sanctuary, where we could go and write and create,” Robertson remembers, the enthusiasm still shining out of him. Dylan came to the basement, and they did not just record music, but shot film as well. The footage of Richard feeding the cats, and of Rick rambling in the woods with his dog Hamlet, a gift from Dylan, is glorious. Leslie West of Mountain doing a twirl on a wooded Catskill path to ‘Million Dollar Bash’ will light your day.
Grossman, who arranged their first recording contract, told the men they needed to record their own tunes. A session drummer hired for the purpose didn’t work out; says Robertson, “If you have a table and one of the legs is missing, it doesn’t sit steady.” Helm returned, and Dominique was happy to meet him at last: “He was such a charming person, there was a sense of relief in the band that he was back, and hopefully he would stay.” There was a spare bedroom in Big Pink, and Levon always loved dogs. He moved in, and Hamlet had a new friend in the house.
In one of the only moments in which he is heard from in Once Were Brothers, Garth Hudson speaks about the “lifestyle that we got to love in Woodstock.” Richard Manuel chimes in: “We discovered a whole vocal thing that we weren’t aware that we ever had.” However, music plays over photos of Robertson and his growing family, with a birth certificate indicating his beautiful little girl has been born not in Woodstock, but in Canada. Even as The Band were on the edge of fame and good record sales, the cover of Time magazine, and independent popular acclaim, Robertson’s life already appears to have been diverging. Robbie had a wife and family; the others did not.
Drink and drugs were becoming a large part of the musicians’ lives. Manuel drank too much, once wrecking Dominique’s Mustang with her inside it; and heroin use by Helm, Manuel, and Danko is repeatedly cited to in Once Were Brothers as the leading reason Robertson left The Band. “There was an experimenting going on that led to heroin. And I was confused that the guys wanted to play with that fire,” he says. Dominique adds, “Robbie might have used….but he did not have that gene that would cause him to become an addict.”
Helm, in his memoir, was forthright long ago about his years abusing heroin and the time it took “to get a handle on myself,” but says that “drugs were just part of the black mood that settled upon us. There were also the issues of artistic control of The Band and the direction we were going in — if any.” In Once Were Brothers, Robertson emphasises Helm’s heroin use in particular. “One day I said to Levon, I can see what’s going on, I know you, and he was doing the junkie denial, and explaining, and making excuses, and laughing, and slapping me on the back. I’d never had this kind of an encounter with him before. We don’t do that, we don’t lie to one another. I still loved him, but something got broken in that, and it was like glass, it was hard to put back together again.” Robertson’s own well-documented wild days would come later, after he left The Band.
Robbie Robertson sought a new life in California, one which he at first wanted to share with his bandmates. David Geffen had wanted to meet with him there, and images of Robertson’s family on Pacific beaches are now backed with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Free Man in Paris’ — a song said to have been written by Mitchell for Geffen, while she and he were in France with the Robertsons. Another Mitchell song, ‘California’, with its refrain of “Will you take me as I am/ Strung out on another man?” would be apter. Taplin recalls that Geffen “started romancing Robbie” to get to Bob Dylan through him. Says Geffen, “In every band, there is someone who ends up being the leader, one way or the other. Usually the star is the lead singer. In The Band it wasn’t. Robbie’s a star.” He encouraged Robertson to leave Woodstock permanently. “I remember saying to Robbie, of all the places you could live, why pick Woodstock, because Albert Grossman lives here? I thought it was a shit-hole. I mean I hated it. I suggested to Robbie that he move to Malibu.”
Geffen got to meet Dylan, as he wanted, and put into effect the idea he had for Bob and The Band to tour together again. “David was just pure unleashed ambition,” says Taplin. Indeed, when Geffen recalls, “I had signed The Band and Bob Dylan to Asylum Records,” he’s palpably proud of it still. Dylan and The Band would no longer be booed as they’d been in 1966. Now, says Robertson, the proposed tour “was embraced like a second coming.” Then The Band went on tour alone, but Manuel’s heroin use and Helm’s dissatisfaction, which Dominique puts down to Robbie’s moving forward and Levon’s personal envy of his success, spoiled those days. Time for The Last Waltz.
Robertson says it was his idea to “document it properly.” To do this, he recruited his friend Scorsese. The Last Waltz “was such a beautiful thank you to this wonderful journey that we’d been on and the amazing experiences we’d had. The whole thing was so moving.” Clips from Scorsese’s documentary play, as Robertson states, “We did The Last Waltz with the idea that we would put that away, take care of one another a bit, and really come back together again and make music like we had never made before….Everybody just forgot to come back.” Well, no. Only Robertson forgot. They did finish another record together after the Waltz, Islands (1977), and then Helm, Manuel, Danko, and Hudson moved back home, leaving L.A. and its glitz for the little Catskill mountain town that Geffen calls a shit-hole. They toured as The Band, with guitarists including Jimmy Weider, from 1983 until Manuel’s suicide in 1986. Helm, Hudson, and Danko, with a rotating cast of friends, continued playing and recording as The Band until Danko’s death in 1999.
UP IN FLAMES
The rancorous rift between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson was never mended. With ‘It Makes No Difference’ playing in the background, Robertson says, “Some years later Levon was having a tough time, and out of that his anger was aimed at me.” Larry Campbell, for many years the bandleader of Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band, collaborator with him on songs, and producer of three GRAMMY-winning records with him, makes an appearance in Once Were Brothers to say “Levon’s point was these were five guys that all played a role in making The Band what it was, I mean, the combination of those five guys was so unique and so… and he felt that Robbie was claiming all the credit for himself.”
Robertson’s solo career from 1987, and his extensive and acclaimed work in films over the past thirty years, often in collaboration with Scorsese, is not part of the story as he has chosen to tell it, or of this movie. Once Were Brothers skips over many decades to end with Helm’s death in 2012, after his long and valiant battle with cancer. “I got a message that Levon was in the hospital, and he was dying. I got on a plane and I went to the hospital. Levon wasn’t conscious any more. His daughter was there, and she took me into the room and I sat with him, and I held his hand, and I thought about the amazing times we had had together.” Robertson pauses to sip his tea, as ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ swells. Helm’s performance from The Last Waltz of a song he had abjured, and never sang on stage again, is the background for the reprise of photographs, and a fade back into mostly black and white images, the ones you know by heart, Elliott Landy capturing five laughing friends framed in a window streaked by Woodstock sleet and snow.
Robertson does himself a perhaps inadvertent disservice to have ‘Once Were Brothers’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ in the same film. Here is some of the first song:
“We already had it out
Between the north and south
When we heard all the lies (life?)
Comin' out of your mouth
But we stood together
Like we were next of kin
And when the band played Dixie
(Dixie, Dixie, Dixie)
They came a-marchin' in”
Compare this to two stanzas of the second, earlier song:
“Back with my wife in Tennessee, one day she called to me,
Said ‘Virgil, quick come see, for there goes the Robert E. Lee.’
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good
You take what you need and you leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best
The night they drove old Dixie down, when all the bells were ringin’
The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singin’
“Like my father before me, I will work the land
And like my brother above me, who took a Rebel stand
He was just eighteen, proud and brave, but a Yankee laid him in his grave
And I swear by the mud below my feet
You can't raise a Caine back up when he's in defeat
The night they drove old Dixie down, when the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down, and all the people were singin’”
One of these things is not like the other. As Clinton Heylin wrote of Testimony, the direct basis for this movie, one comes away from it with “No greater understanding of where classic songs like ‘The Weight,’ ‘Acadian Driftwood,’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ came from; or where that gift went.” The great strength of Once Were Brothers is in the music made by The Band. “It was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames,” says Robertson of The Band’s brotherhood. That fire will always burn in their music, which not only speaks best and entirely authoritatively for itself, but abides.
photograph © Elliott Landy