Forty-one years after the theatrical release of “The Last Waltz,” Robbie Robertson gets the last word on that era in “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” a documentary picked by the Toronto Int’l Film Festival as its opening night gala premiere. It covers Robertson’s tenure in the Band from the group’s early ’60s origins through that final concert in 1976, famously documented by Martin Scorsese (who serves as an executive producer here). Robertson comes not just to celebrate that time but to relitigate it, having been demonized over the years by other Band members and the fans who favor them. To the survivor as well as the raconteur go the spoils, and Robertson is nothing if not both those things.
“Once Were Brothers” is essentially a movie adaptation of Robertson’s 2016 autobiography, “Testimony: A Memoir.” Just as the book ended with the tale of “The Last Waltz” (he’s working on a sequel now), so the film takes its leave there, too, although “Brothers” does include something he was presumably saving for the second memoir: his account of visiting another former Band member, Levon Helm, on his deathbed. It’s not a very juicy story; Helm was in a state of unconsciousness by the time Robertson got to his side in 2012. Mostly it just plants more “what if” questions in the minds of their mutual fans, since Helm had become Robertson’s bête noire before and after his own 1993 memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which painted the Band’s unofficial leader as an official betrayer and silver-tongued devil. In his interviews in “Once Were Brothers” (emphasis on the “once” and “were”), you sense Robertson treading a little bit lightly, not wanting to further antagonize Team Levon, but recognizing this is his best, if not last, chance to really set the record straight.
In the documentary, he has something he didn’t in the book: the direct testimony of some witnesses who back up his version of things, like “Last Waltz” producer Jonathan Taplin, the Band’s early record producer, John Simon, their house photographer, Elliott Landy, and Ronnie Hawkins, the rockabilly singer the Band formed to back (then known as the Hawks) before Bob Dylan borrowed them to troll his folk audiences with a plugged-in and juiced-up ensemble. There’s also Robertson’s wife, Dominique, who might have even more reason to take his side, in the moments where there are sides to be had. Then again, when a closing “where are they now” crawl reveals that Dominique is now “a therapist specializing in addiction recovery,” that’s some testimony in itself to the likely truth of just how severe the heroin and alcohol issues faced by Band members Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Helm were. These weren’t conditions she had to discover in a textbook on the way to a career path — not when she had Manuel driving her new car into a ditch, with her terrified in the passenger seat, after assuring her, “I sober up behind the wheel.”
The early going of “Once Were Brothers” will surely be a little slow for random Toronto gala attendees and anyone else unlucky enough to be unfamiliar with the Band’s rock ‘n’ roll course-changing 1960s catalog. Stars like Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal and Van Morrison show up to attest to the group’s greatness, but it’s never as if a neophyte is going to take their word on this. Springsteen is useful at distilling one of the things that was unique about the Band, besides the fact that they almost invented the Americana subgenre as we now know it: They had “three of the greatest white singers in rock history,” says the Boss. “To have any one of those guys would be the foundation of a great group. To have three was just loaded for bear.”
Less assertive of voice, Robertson was not even one of those three, but he was undeniably the central creative force, eventually writing all the songs as the others became less interested. “Usually the star is the lead singer. In the Band, it wasn’t,” David Geffen says in the film, assigning that designation to his pal Robertson, naturally. Gee, what could possibly go wrong here — even without the group being split right down the middle on whether to get stoned on soft drugs or the hard stuff?
And so, for better or worse — worse if you had to be there; better for TIFF attendees or younger viewers who don’t know “Music From Big Pink” from “the brown album” — the film picks up more general interest once it moves past the early nobility of the outfit as a band of brothers into the things that cripple the least greatest of groups, like who’s getting the glory. Geffen, of whom it’s suggested that he befriended Robertson to get to his real quarry, Dylan, convinces Robertson to pack up for Malibu.
Soon, says the record producer Simon, “Robbie told me he didn’t want to go on the road with a bag of heroin” — plus, he had dreams of working with Ingmar Bergman, Simon laughs, though he settled for Scorsese. With Robertson also coming to see Helm as an inveterate complainer — “a bitterness set in with him” — a swan song was set up, although only Robbie saw the wisdom of going out in “Waltz” time. (The film never mentions that the group eventually reunited and hit the road without him, with mixed results, before losing Manuel to suicide in 1986 and Danko to heart failure in ’99.)
It’s no surprise to anyone who’s met him or even listened thoughtfully to some of the greatest rock songs ever written that Robertson would be such an articulate and ingratiating tour guide through all this glorious and eventually tortured history. He doesn’t come off as overly defensive, even though some have tried to make him into the Mike Love of the group — a careerist villain who squelched authentic talent — even though there’s at least a good a case to make that his talent and auteurism made him the Band’s Brian Wilson. Who would argue against the guy who’s the most responsible and most creative finally saying no to smack, and no to smack-talk? Well, nobody else from the Band itself, since the reclusive, non-combative Garth Hudson is the only other one left alive.
Director Daniel Rohar’s job here is to faithfully represent his subject and gather the voices who confirm his recollections — and to put some amazing vintage black-and-white photographs on screen, since, outside of “The Last Waltz,” there are shockingly few good film clips of the Band in their prime that exist. As executive-producer influences go, Rohar’s approach seems more in line with the no-frills aesthetic of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer than Scorsese.
Could it be true, as he contends in the film, that Robertson didn’t ever actually mean to break up the Band, and just wanted a long vacation where the others would clean up? Outsiders may never be able to definitively answer that. In any case, Robertson and his filmmakers do let Helm get the last word here after all — with a magnificent film clip of the drummer singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” They were all stars, even if they weren’t really brothers.