Category Archives: TIFF 2019

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.

I am Woman – Director, Unjoo Moon

I warn all readers that I saw this movie suffering from hypoglycemia and annoyed at TIFF for not accepting my printed ticket and making me get in line to get a new one printed. TIFF organization is really really bad. That said – this is a pretty mediocre film. This is a biopic about Helen Reddy (played amazingly well by Tilda Cobham-Hervey). I admit to finding the song, I am Woman, very powerful and I understand how and why it has become an anthem for the woman’s movement. I confess to having a bit of a heart flutter when I hear Reddy sing it however, I did not find this biopic to be particularly inspiring and in many ways directionless. Reddy had 12 top 40 hits during her career, she was a good singer, she had a difficult career and many personal challenges in addition to her strong feminist activism. She was also surrounded and supported by some remarkable people who also had their own personal challenges. This film failed to figure out what part of her life or that of the ones around her to be the focus of the film. The only hit that was well presented was I am Woman which was done twice. Her other hits were not presented well if at all. Her husband and manager is a cocaine addict and was abusive until that was confronted but the relationship between them is left unresolved in the film other than hinting at the fact they broke up. Her friendship with Lillian Roxon (played by Danielle MacDonald) is equally poorly developed and left unresolved other than learning that she dies and Helen doesn’t go to the funeral. That she stopped singing and took up a quiet unpublic life is not explained – it is just presented. i saw this at the Elgin with a full crowd who were totally into Reddy and her activism. If that had been the focus it might have worked better but sadly I found the whole thing a bore. It is not horrible or anything just not very good. I suggest it might be worth watching in bed late at night if you can’t sleep but otherwise, if you like Reddy’s music, just get Spotify or Google Play to stream some songs for you. It will be more satisfying.

Okay – having had some food I need to say that Helen Reddy is a remarkable woman and her anthem is a great song. Listen here if you do not know the song:

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles – Director, Max Lewkowicz

Okay it’s the day before TIFF actually starts but I nonetheless took in a great documentary at the Hot Docs cinema. I confess that I really enjoy books and films that describe how movies or plays were created and presented. Two of my favourite books are Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor and We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. This time I saw a movie that falls into the same category as these books. I confess I am not a huge musical fan although I have developed a taste for older musicals like Oklahoma and West Side Story. I should thank the Stratford Festival for drawing me in. Fiddler on the Roof is not one that I have really liked but this documentary made me pay attention. The musical is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the lives of the Jewish population in eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Not a good time for the Jews who suffered poverty and persecution. To make a musical about this time and these events is likely not the first thing to come to mind but the composers, lyricists, producers and directors who have undertaken this task are portrayed and interviewed particularly those who put together the first production in the 1960’s. The people include the producer Harold Prince, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Happily many of the original people involved are still with us and made for great interviews. I learned a great deal about Jerome Robbins I did not know and I learned a great deal about how a Broadway Show gets put together and staged successfully.

The show has been in continuous production for over 50 years not only on Broadway but in such disparate locations as Korea and Japan. It has been cast with all black cast members, and of course in schools and festivals like Stratford. The documentary shows us that the theme of the film – Tradition – and the suffering and struggles of these Jews are universal themes that speak to all cultures and communities.  It includes film from productions all over the world but what is really cool for Canadians is that they return again and again to a classic production in Stratford.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and recommend it anyone with an interest in film or theatre. You will learn a lot and not be disappointed whether you like musicals or not.