As guitarist and chief songwriter with the Band, one of the most influential groups of the 1960s and ’70s, Robbie Robertson’s legacy was established long ago. After its early days with blues singer Ronnie Hawkins and a tumultuous stint as Bob Dylan’s backing band at the peak of his near-hysterical mid-1960s fame, the Band began its own career in 1968. The galvanizing “Music From Big Pink” was an album so influential it rubbed off on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and inspired Eric Clapton to visit them in an unfulfilled hope that they’d ask him to join. At the center of the group’s fusion of blues, rock, folk, soul and other genres were Robertson’s cinematic songs, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which are filled with epic stories and unusual characters.
In the 40-plus years since the original incarnation of the Band played itself off with the 1976 “Last Waltz” concert and film, Robertson has released several solo albums, but primarily he’s plied a related path, working in just about every film-music role under the sun. His IMDb profile includes credits as music consultant, music producer, executive music producer, soundtrack producer and, presumably as a catch-all involving scoring, simply “musician.” His work, most prominently with Martin Scorsese, ranges from “Raging Bull” and “Casino” to “The Color of Money” and the forthcoming “The Irishman.” He even took on multiple roles as co-screenwriter, co-producer and co-star, alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey, in the 1978 film “Carny.”
“I just say, ‘Whatever you want to call it,’” Robertson laughs of his wide variety of credits. “In all these movies the task could be completely different. Sometimes it’s writing original music, sometimes it’s [music supervision], sometimes it’s collaborative. I don’t read or write music, so I tell the musicians in impressionistic terms what I’m looking for. I’ve done it so many different ways. I really enjoy the challenge.”
In recent months, the Ontario-born Robertson has faced a related challenge — multitasking — as he more or less simultaneously recorded the soundtrack for “The Irishman” and his new solo album “Sinematic,” while working on a documentary about the Band (three of whose five members are no longer alive) called “Once Were Brothers.” To him, they’re all just different methods of storytelling.
Says Robertson: “At a young age I became a movie buff, and in the ‘60s, when I was playing with Bob Dylan, I was living at the Chelsea Hotel, and the poet Gregory Corso told me about the Gotham Book Mart. I’d go there and buy the scripts of films by John Ford or Orson Welles or Luis Buñuel, and they really affected my songwriting. Over the years, every time I write a song, it’s like a little movie. It’s always had that connection to me, maybe now more than ever. Because I was making [‘Sinematic’] and working on ‘Brothers’ and ‘The Irishman,’ all of it was connected.”
After the Band split up in 1976, Robertson went whole-hog into filmmaking with “Carny.” He had worked in carnivals as a teenager, so the film’s narrative spoke to him — so much that he ended up getting involved as a producer. Then he began tinkering with the script and was asked to play one of the characters, as well as oversee the music. As if wearing all of those hats weren’t enough, the shooting of the film was an adventure in itself. “When you put real carnies — tricksters and human oddities that [are called] ‘freaks’ — and actors and a movie crew all together, it’s like fire and oil,” he recalls. “It was fascinating and completely crazy; these carnies were cheating the crew and the actors out of their money, making their watches or wallets disappear. Part of the experience was phenomenal, but I’d bitten off way more than I wanted to chew, so I said, ‘I’m gonna go back to my rock ’n’ roll world and keep my sanity for a while!’”
He didn’t stay there for long. Scorsese, with whom he’d collaborated on “The Last Waltz,” asked him to work on the music for “Raging Bull,” and although the two have teamed up many times over the years, Robertson says the process never repeats itself.
“I love the sense of starting from a place where I have no idea what to do, and then some light shines through and it turns into something magical. For [the 2010 film] ‘Shutter Island,’ I read the script and looked at some footage and said, ‘I think we should use all modern classical music.’ For ‘The Color of Money,’ it was about hustlers and pool halls, so let’s do something sleazy, in the best sense of the word: Let’s collaborate with Willie Dixon, one of the greatest blues songwriters who’s ever lived, and ask [master arranger] Gil Evans to orchestrate it. And in ‘Casino,’ there was one section where nothing was working, so I used the theme from Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ as an homage. There are all these different ways of going at it, and Marty has an incredible instinct for things that are not obvious.”
While a vacation may seem to be in order, instead Robertson is multitasking again. He’s in a hurry to finish the second volume of his autobiography (the first, “Testimony,” served as the basis for “Once Were Brothers”) so he can get to his next Scorsese project: an adaptation of David Grann’s Native American-based true-life murder mystery “Killers of the Flower Moon,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. “I’m so excited,” gushes Robertson, who is himself of Mohawk and Cayuga descent. “I’m gonna go deep on this one.”