In the annals of rock and roll mythology, The Band enjoys an exalted status. The quintet is credited with more or less inventing the Americana sound, and their synergy as a musical unit was legendary. Among the five world class musicians were three gold-standard lead vocalists and one Hall of Fame songwriter—Robbie Robertson.
Once Were Brothers is the story of The Band told from the perspective of Robertson. It's based on his autobiography, making Robertson effectively the narrator of the film. That's good and bad. The film's singular POV provides a sturdy narrative structure—and it's a hell of a story—but also leaves the film feeling, at times, like commissioned portraiture.
Still, what a lovely portrait. The Band assembled itself in the late 1960s and famously served as Bob Dylan's backing act when he jumped from folk to rock. The archival footage from this period is fantastic and includes home-movie-style film clips from the heart of the rock and roll revolution. Director Daniel Roher (Finding Fukue) alternates old film clips with testimonials from admirers: Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Peter Gabriel, Jann Wenner, Van Morrison.
"If there were any American musicians comparable to the Beatles, it was them," says Taj Mahal.
Casual fans should enjoy all the musical history on display, while serious students of The Band are provided some interesting insights. Clapton extols the group's disciplined creative process:
"They didn't jam," he says. "They were a songwriting outfit."
Toward the end, the film suggests the real reasons The Band splintered as it did—alcoholism and addiction. Robertson and Garth Hudson, the two relatively sober members, held the group together for years (tellingly, they're the only two still alive), but the Band still detonated at the end of its run in a cloud of bitterness and copyright disputes. With the film, Robertson basically gets in the last word.
Roher flashes forward throughout, but sensibly ends it all with the story of The Last Waltz, the famous 1978 farewell concert immortalized by filmmaker Martin Scorsese. That's the right choice. On that transcendent evening, The Band was the best rock and roll group on the planet. That's how we ought to remember them.
"It was a beautiful thing," Robertson says. "It was so beautiful it went up in flames."
+Rare archival footage; intriguing insights
-A conspicuous lack of outside perspectives
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
Directed by Daniel Roher
With Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Martin Scorsese
The Screen, R, 102 min.