The documentary recounts the story of one of Canada’s musical legends — a man who served as both lead guitarist and primary songwriter on a group that introduced the likes of “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into the pop culture lexicon. “Once Were Brothers” will have its world premiere at the festival. The gala presentation will be on Thursday, Sept. 5, at Roy Thomson Hall.
It’s the first time a Canadian-made documentary will open the festival. The track record of opening night films at Toronto is a spotty one. Last year, the festival got things started with Netflix’s “Outlaw King,” a period drama about Robert the Bruce that drew a muted response. Other openers, like the critically derided “The Fifth Estate” and the box office duds “Borg vs McEnroe” and “Demolition,” failed to generate much heat after kicking off the festival. To be fair, Toronto has also gotten things started with winners, such as “Looper” and “The Sweet Hereafter” over the course of its four decades.
“Once Were Brothers” is directed by Daniel Roher (“Ghosts of Our Forest”) and was inspired by Robertson’s 2016 memoir. The movie features interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, the legendary director who shot The Band’s 1976 performance at the Winterland Ballroom for “The Last Waltz,” along with musical giants such as Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, and Ronnie Hawkins.
“This is one of Toronto’s great stories of a hometown hero,” said Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head. “From his early years in this city, to the inspiration he took from life on the Six Nations reserve, to the impact he’s had on generations of music lovers, Robertson emerges in Roher’s film as a truly Canadian-made superstar.”
The Toronto Film Festival is a key launching pad for awards season releases. Past Oscar winners such as “The Green Book” and “The Shape of Water” have screened at the Canadian festival, emerging as Oscar frontrunners. Next week, the festival will unveil the movies that will show as part of its 44th edition.