Image by: Elliot Landy
Interviews Film Reviews

NZIFF Film Review: Once Were Brothers - Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019)

Includes Interview with Director Daniel Roher

Roger Bowie

Daniel Roher is a film maker from Toronto and Once Were Brothers (2019) is his second feature film. It was an extreme honour for him for his documentary to open the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

Once Were Brothers is also the title of a song from Robbie Robertson’s forthcoming album Sinematic and once his team of producers heard the song, it was immediately chosen as the title of the documentary. Which is of course, about Robbie Robertson and The Band, the most extraordinary group of musicians to emerge in the US in the 60’s, a musical family of brothers who didn’t need a fancy name, and whose first album Music From The Big Pink, changed Eric Clapton’s life.

It tells the story of Robbie being blown away by an 18 year old Levon drumming for the Hawks, how Robbie was invited in after writing songs for Ronnie Hawkins aged 15, and how the Hawks became Canadian plus one good old rebel farmer from Arkansas. It tells of their discovery by Dylan, their tours with Bob, being constantly booed by the folk oriented audiences, and their coming together in the basement of Big Pink. Nobody going anywhere. It tells of the great love and brotherhood of five young men whose creativity prospered through working together. And it tells how heavy drug use unraveled the fabric of their brotherhood and addiction and depression, unknown and un-diagnosed at the time, broke up The Band. It’s a fascinating, timeless story, because the music lives on.

Great archive, great interviews with great artists (Clapton, Springsteen, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Dylan, Scorsese, and lots of Ronnie Hawkins, who utters the line of the movie. Look out for it)

I caught up with Daniel Roher, Director, on zoom this week, just before his evening dinner.

Well, it’s a fabulous story, one most rock fans are familiar with at least to some extent, and a tragic story as well. Why were you so keen, at aged 24, to tackle it. I mean Robbie has a reputation of being a challenge to deal with, he’s focused, he knows what he wants, he’s determined. So why you, and why now?

First and foremost, Daniel is a fan. He grew up listening to The Band’s music. He has a reverence for it. And when he got a chance to interview with Robbie, he acknowledged his inexperience, but told him “I’ll fucking die before your movie is not amazing” and a chord was struck. He was 24, Robbie was 24 when The Band made Music From the Big Pink, and he saw in Daniel the same tenacity and determination to succeed that drove him all those years ago. A younger version of himself. And not just because he looks like Robbie did 50 odd years ago. Just ask Carly Simon, whose reaction when she first met Daniel unfortunately didn’t make the cut.

Roher RobertsonGlazer Howard

Daniel Roher, Robbie Robertson, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard

So, how did this happen, you started in a basement with a shoestring budget and you ended up with a major production?

In fact, the movie stayed as a basement production, with Daniel and a small team, some of whom were amateurs, sharing the workload. The big break came when the first rough cut got the attention of Imagine Documentaries, owned by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. And then Martin Scorsese came in as Executive Producer (of which there are many in this film), but despite all that attention, which crowds out the credits at the end, the “rag tag” team stayed the course. Because of course the major cost in a film like this comes at the end when the archive has to be cleared.

And this is what makes this film so great, the unseen before footage, video and stills, which Daniel was able to locate by seeking out photographers widows, executors of deceased photographers estates and relentlessly searching, searching, searching for the locker which hides away somewhere and contains archival jewellery. Not unlike Thom Zimny (The Gift), who told a similar story last year when describing the process of unarchiving Johnny Cash’s past. And, like Thom, the harder he looked, the luckier he got. Johnny Cash had made his own tapes. No one had heard them before. Robbie Robertson has a storage locker in LA. No one had been in there before. And the Super 8 reels located in Ontario Canada, footage from the 50’s and early 60’s. Just magic. Even if you hate Robbie Robertson (there must be one or two who feel that way) you should still watch this movie for the archive.

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Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks 1960 Elliot Landy

And of course, Bob Dylan came to the party, He opened his archive. And 15 songs. “who gets fifteen Dylan songs in their movie? Not too many people (Roher)”

You still use talking heads in this movie, but also do a very effective job of putting stills to music or stills to talking. How do you find the right balance?

No one wants to see gnarly old faces reminiscing. They don’t mind hearing them reminisce, but not looking at them. Which is why archive over voice is so much better. Talking heads are really effective when the emotion of a given moment or memory needs to be captured. Raw.

The big issue for this film, is of course, unavoidably, that this is Robbie’s story of  The Band. It’s like he gets the last word in this the last dance. Did you struggle with the overwhelming sense that this is one person’s narrative, not The Band's?

Daniel understands the question, but then again, he didn’t give the movie it’s full title, which makes it very clear this is Robbie’s story as much as it is of The Band. And no, it’s not the last word, just the most recent one. People can still go see Levon’s story (Ain’t In It For My Health, 2013), and read his book.  So, no, it wasn’t a struggle, it was the hand he was dealt, and he has to play it the best he can.

And of course, it’s a tragedy, a tragedy of brothers falling out and drifting apart. What do you think is at the core of Robbie’s motivation here? Redemption, vindication, or just genuine love and nostalgia?

Daniel’s view here is unequivocal. It’s genuine love and nostalgia which is driving Robbie to make this film in this way. And if this sounds a touch disingenuous to all the Levon fans out there, I push a little further and probe about the elephant in the room, the issue of songwriting credits, which in those days translates big time into money, even to this day, and was at the core of Levon’s problem with Robbie, no matter which side of the story you sit on..

Here Daniel starts off a little defensively, saying he has lots of footage of people discussing that issue, but the whole thing to him is just not interesting, and history.(But maybe one of his executive producers had  a view on this as well?)

But then he gathers pace, and makes to my mind an unequivocal case in defense of Robbie as the “more equal than the sum of its parts” member of The Band. He wrote the songs. Listen to The Band without him and judge it for yourself. If you don’t want to hear the whole interview, then listen to this piece. It’s very compelling and starts about 5 minutes from the end.

Finally, I quote from John Simon (the producer of The Band’s first two albums, as well as music producer for The Last Waltz) who describes Rick as the heart, Richard as the soul, Levon the guts, and Garth the intellect of The Band .

But he struggled to fit Robbie into the metaphor. Can you?

Here we go: “Robbie was the brains. Garth certainly has the intellect, the trope of the nutty professor who sits in his basement with all his instruments playing. Robbie was the brains, he was the operator, he was the one who was thinking about the next step, who was working angles, who was networked, he was more shrewd than the others….”

Or, as John Simon also puts it, he was “canny”

So there you have it, from the Director’s mouth.

Robbie Roberston

Image Supplied

From my perspective this is a must watch for any fan of The Band and their great contribution to music in the late 60s and 70s. It’s also easy to forget that they spent just as much time together as The Hawks before they hit their straps.

And it really doesn’t matter where you sit with Robbie and his relationship with the other members, it’s the music, the music, the music which matters. And there’s lots of it in this film.

Enjoy it. Watch it twice.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band  screens from 2pm Sunday August 2nd, 

Check for viewing  times here.

Written By: Roger Bowie Roger Bowie has been collecting music since 1964, starting with 45 rpm singles, and then building an LP and CD collection from 1970. 1.8 per week since then. Not a vast collection, but eclectic and occasionally obscure. Roger is a big Americana fan, and regularly attends AmericanaFest in Nashville, held every September. Also, he once played golf with Alice Cooper...