Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is a 2019 documentary about the highly influential music group which ended up inadvertently inventing Americana. They started out as the Hawks backing up rockabilly sensation Ronnie Hawkins. Bob Dylan caught wind of the talented group and recruited them to back him up on his infamous electric tour. There are some humorous scenes where Robbie Robertson is describing how they got booed at every show since people were so upset with Dylan plugging into amplifiers.
The Band eventually moved into a pink house near Woodstock and started working on their own record. This resulted in the iconic first record Music From Big Pink. There is a lot of mystique surrounding this house, and it’s one of the most interesting parts of the documentary. Dylan moved in for awhile, and they recorded The Basement Tapes in the basement of Big Pink. the concept of recording an album in a house was very revolutionary for this time. It’s not like today, where Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) can take his laptop to a cabin in Wisconsin and cough up an album with Pro Tools.
Robbie Robertson & Levon Helm
The film is based on Robbie Robertson’s memoir, and it’s filtered through his experience. Levon Helm released a book claiming he should have had some of the songwriting credits for their biggest hits like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It’s an unusual situation where the lead singer is not credited as a songwriter, but as the film illustrates, Robertson was a workaholic. He was busy writing music at 10am while the other members were sleeping off hangovers.
Eventually, other members of the band started taking too many substances and crashing vehicles into trees, even one of them breaking their neck which prevented a tour from happening. I guess one of the aspects of living in the woods as a band is the fact that there is not much to do and there are no rules. Dylan famously wrote this song You Ain’t Going Nowhere about being at Big Pink.
Springsteen, Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel
Once Were Brothers does a great job of combining archival footage and photography along with new interviews from such musical icons as Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, and Van Morrison. Springsteen talks about The Band’s music as if it has always existed, and we finally tapped into it. Clapton describes how their music changed his life, and had a direct impact on his decision to leave Cream. He half jokingly says that he approached The Band about becoming a member. One of the best parts about music documentaries is hearing other musicians talk about influence and paying their respects.
The Last Waltz
The film concludes with the filming of The Last Waltz, arguably the greatest concert film of all time. They wanted to document a final performance with some of their friends and Scorsese was the obvious choice. The Band went their separate ways after that project. The film glosses over the other members of the group after they broke up. Richard Danko died in 1999 from heart failure at the age of 55. Garth Hudson still alive and still lives in Woodstock. Richard Manuel commit suicide in 1986. The film is available for streaming on Hulu or DVD from Netflix.