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Review: 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band'

If you’ve ever seen Martin Scorsese’s seminal concert video The Last Waltz (1978) you know about the legendary band known simply as The Band.

It was a cleverly simple, unassuming, attention-getting name for one of the most unique musical partnerships the music world has ever seen.

Their songs stood out. They had lasting, staying power.

They defied easy classification. And, so did the band members who wrote and performed them.

At the center of it all was founding member Robbie Robertson, a Canadian pop prodigy who was playing professionally and writing songs when he was just 15.

Culturally, he was the product of a mother with native Canadian background.

When he was a young man, she told him that his real father, who he had never met, was Jewish.

The birth of rock and roll opened a door for Robertson.

He knew it would be his destiny.

While still in his mid-teens he fulfilled a dream of playing guitar in Ronnie Hawkins band Ronnie and the Hawks.

When asked how much the job paid, Hawkins said “you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more p---y than Frank Sinatra.” Hawkins added, “And he did!”

He quickly became a well-respected guitarist.

He formed a lifelong friendship with drummer Levon Helm. Eventually the remaining musicians came aboard.

For Robertson, an only child, the bandmates became his brothers. It was a tight bond.

I felt a kinship with Robertson having been an only child who formed a popular rock band when I was in high school.

(The Sequins L-R: Drew Moniot, Dan Metrick, Marvin Ordy, Dave Lytle)

I knew exactly what he was talking about. We played together and enjoyed each other’s company when we weren’t playing together.

It was as much about comradery and friendship as it was about music.

But that’s where the comparison ends.

Their path eventually captured the attention of a young Bob Dylan who immediately recognized their enormous talent.

It was in the days when Dylan shocked the folk music world by playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

The daring decision to go electric amounted to heresy for his diehard fans who could only imagine him strumming an acoustic guitar forever.

Unfazed, Dylan launched into a major tour both here and abroad that was uniformly rejected.

Robertson recalls the crowds booing them at every performance.

Dylan stuck to his guns, telling the band “Whatever happens, don’t stop playin’!”

The film traces the years that followed.

The band famously moved into a pink-painted house in Woodstock, New York in 1967 where they lived together and wrote songs together. The resulting album was called Music from the Big Pink.

Bob Dylan, though not on the album, created the album cover art.

Once Were Brothers details the rise and eventual fall of a truly legendary band.

It is an engrossing story, told masterfully, with sweetness and frankness.

It’s an impressive documentary. Martin Scorsese was the executive producer, along with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, whose career has taken a turn toward musical documentaries in recent years.

I’m referring to the movie The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—the Touring Years (2016).

The story leads us to Martin Scorsese’s milestone musical documentary The Last Waltz (1978) which turned out to be the last time the members of the band performed together.

It is a treasure. A stunning achievement and a fitting musical tribute to The Band.

It’s mostly music, interspersed with anecdotes and interviews from the band members.

Conversely, Once Were Brothers is comprised of mostly interviews interspersed with some music from their famous musical catalog.

The interviewees are a who’s who from the world of contemporary music: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Peter Gabriel, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Hawkins, just to name a few.

The best of the best in the business all acknowledge the achievements and lasting legacy of a very special musical partnership and collaboration.

Among the delightful details, Robertson recalls sitting down to write a song.

Searching for inspiration, he stared down through the sound hole into the body of his Martin acoustic guitar.

The stamp read “Nazareth,” which is the town in Pennsylvania where Martin Guitars are made.

The lyrics began to flow, “Pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead . . . ”

The song “The Weight,” one of The Band's biggest hits, was born.

If you’re a fan of The Band, you will love this movie.

If you are unfamiliar with their songs, I’m pretty certain that you will be a fan by the time the final credits roll.


Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band can be seen digitally and On Demand.

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