In Review: Once Were Brothers

I love The Band. This blog is named after a song by The Band. My username is based on a song by The Band. Fans of The Band feel a little on the outside. The Band’s moment in the spotlight was short and unusual, and they don’t get the fanfare that many of their contemporaries receive (and that their fans believe is due).

As a fan of The Band, a major documentary about them is appealing. For ourselves, we get the chance to see them in photos and videos and to hear their voices and music. For The Band, we can fantasize about a new generation of people discovering their greatness.

From this perspective, there is a lot to like about Once Were Brothers. I saw many pictures and films I’d never seen before. I heard stories and recordings for the first time. I enjoyed Ronnie Hawkins at every stage of his life. I got to have Taj Mahal confirm what I’ve always thought: The Band were the closest thing 1960s America had to the Beatles. (Very few documentaries about bands whose first album was released in 1968 would not name The Beatles as an influence. The Band is the coolest.)

That being said, Once Were Brothers is a Robbie Robertson biopic. It’s based on his memoir, he is the main interviewee, and the story revolves around him. The Band’s three lead singers (the men whose voices fans know and love) are dead, and Garth Hudson does not appear in OWB—a mysterious omission that is never explained.

Robbie presents himself as the golden boy who did no wrong. He’s a family man. He didn’t have the addiction gene. His wife is there to call him a great artist. (I spent most of my viewing yelling “Nobody cares about Dominique!” at the screen. Why is she such a large presence? Why does she get an epilogue card? Other than a couple “Friends of Levon Helm,” there are no family members or other representatives for the rest of The Band.)

The music is picked up and discarded in this film. There is a satisfying stretch in the documentary that covers playing with Dylan, tooling around with The Basement Tapes, and recording Music From Big Pink. After their debut album, the rest of their recording career is treated like an afterthought (if discussed at all). “Rockin’ Chair” is played during the section about Big Pink. After The Band and Stage Fright, no other album is even mentioned. Then comes The Last Waltz, which Martin Scorsese, Eric Clapton, and Bruce Springsteen enjoyed (good for them). The Last Waltz is not a celebration of The Band’s influences, as the documentary claims. It is a parade of big name contemporary musicians with whom Robbie had worked or wanted to work.

I read Levon Helm’s scathing autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire many years ago, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth about Robbie. Levon felt that Robbie took advantage of the rest of The Band; he learned how to maximize his own profit, leaving his band mates as glorified studio musicians. Levon’s claims are not outrageous. Not a single song would have been worth a damn without the rest of The Band. That’s why no one cares about Robbie Robertson’s solo career.

Robbie isn’t the first musician to be drawn out of equality with their band mates—led astray by bigger and shinier prospects. What is unsavory about Robbie is his attachment to his narrative. He lived off his earnings while the rest of The Band attempted to make ends meet on the road without him. It is in the documentary that a big time record producer courted Robbie just to get to Bob Dylan, yet Robbie can see nothing but his own genius reaching new heights.

OWB is Robbie’s attempt to discredit Levon now that Levon can’t speak for himself. OWB more or less connects Levon’s heroin use in the 1970s to his 1993 views on Robbie: a dirty trick. Then Robbie tries to absolve himself by describing how he showed up too late to Levon’s deathbed. Rick’s death is not mentioned. Richard’s alcoholism and addiction are discussed, but viewers would never know he died by suicide. These are not forgivable omissions in the story.

In another display of Robbie’s ego, he did not name the documentary after a song by The Band, but after a song he wrote last year. He says that once those five men were brothers, and much of the documentary supports that image. Brought together as a young touring band with no one but each other. Cooped up in the woods, making magic together. These were brothers. But it wasn’t enough for Robbie. He wanted control. He wanted Malibu. Now he wants his name cleared and his slate clean.

Unfortunately, we will never get a neutral chronicle of The Band. Most of the witnesses are dead. Unlike Elvis or The Beatles, The Band didn’t have years of public scrutiny documenting their lives—filling in blank spaces and rounding out the picture. I knew Once Were Brothers would be biased because I’ve known Robbie’s side of the story for years. That has never once stopped me from listening to their music. I am grateful for The Band and what they created. There is heartache within them and without them, and I accept the bitter with the sweet.

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