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CHRIS KNIGHT: Robbie Robertson tells his side of the story in Once Were Brothers

Once Were Brothers.
Once Were Brothers.

Someone points out in Once Were Brothers that family can be close, but they can also fight like the dickens and carry grievances to the grave. That certainly seems to have been the case with the “brothers” that formed The Band, though the rough edges are softened somewhat in the recollections of Canada’s Robbie Robertson, the heart of the folk rock group but also one of just two surviving members of the original five. Garth Hudson is still around but gets little screen time in Daniel Roher’s documentary, which seems content to let Robertson ramble on, unchallenged.

He’s a great storyteller – he talks about the time he needed a hypnotist to get over what may have been stage fright, and he recalls touring with Bob Dylan during that musician’s first flirtation with rock ’n’ roll, which the fans did not appreciate: “We go somewhere, we set up our equipment, we play, people come, they boo us, sometime throw things … I think, ‘What a strange way to make a buck!’ ”

But Robertson also gets the last word on the drug use of Richard Manuel (died 1986) and the goings and comings of Levon Helm (died 2012), who maintained to the end that he’d been cheated out of his share of credit and royalties.

What no one doubts is that The Band was an influential force in music – during its heyday in the late ’60s and early ’70s it produced such classics as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight.” (You know, “Take a load off, Fannie …”)

Roher’s film is enlivened by endless photos of The Band posing as though auditioning for roles in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And the doc, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival this year, features some great supporting interviews by the likes of Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, who gave the future Band its first big break as his backing group The Hawks. He remembers once telling them that the cocaine they’d just bought contained so much sugar and flour they’d “sneeze biscuits” if they snorted it.

But Robertson’s remembrance that it all came to an end after The Last Waltz tour in 1976 – documented by Martin Scorsese, who is also a producer on this film – doesn’t quite match the historical record, which notes that The Band got back together in 1983; just without Robertson. Living well may be the best revenge, but living longer works pretty well, too.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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