Once We Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band – Director, Daniel Roher

I love The Band and have listened to their music for years. Not long before Levon Helm passed away he did a concert tour and I saw him perform at Massey Hall in one of the best concerts I have ever attended so I had to see this documentary. It is notable in that it is the first Canadian documentary to be named the opening gala at TIFF and perhaps more so because the director is a young 26-year-old Canadian. Quite an accomplishment for someone starting out on their career. All that said I must say I did not think this movie was spectacular or worthy of its place in the festival. It is a pretty ordinary documentary about a remarkable rock band. One of the weaknesses might be that it is based on Robbie Robertson’s book: Testimony so it is very much a film about his career as a member of The Band and his memories of the members and its history. It is no secret that the group broke up after 16 years together and that Helm was extremely angry with Robertson as evidenced in his book: This Wheel’s on Fire. I think I hoped for a more objective doc about The Band and its rise and fall. Instead we get a very focussed look from Robertson’s perspective.

That was my disappointment, but the film does go into depth about The Band’s origins in Canada and the role that Ronnie Hawkins played in bringing the group together. It also puts real emphasis on the initial closeness of the members – hence the title—and how that influenced the unique sound they created. I also learned more about their personal struggles than I cared to know including drug addiction, car wrecks and health issues I did not need to know. I think my favourite member of the group after Levon was Garth Hudson who was much older than the others and the quietest. I did not learn enough, and the director was asked about that in the Q and A after the film. He did interview Hudson but said that the interview was cut because of Hudson’s age, describing him as quite elderly and that the interview did not work. This I guess contributed to what I found missing from the film. Again, Roher defended this by saying that he was hired to do a film about Robertson and his career which is fair enough but if you choose to see the film be aware that you will be looking through Robertson’s eyes. On the plus side you will see some amazing classic footage from the years they all lived in Woodstock in a house that is called Big Pink, from concerts and from archival interviews with the members and others like Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen among others. All very interesting. So the bottom line is that if you are a fan of The Band you should likely try to see this movie but I suspect you will be left thirsting for more.

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