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Review: Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

September 20, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Toronto’s own Daniel Roher, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is an engaging and emotional look at Robertson’s own life and career as lead guitarist and main songwriter for The Band, as well as the rise and fall of the group itself. The film recently premiered as the opening night gala of the Toronto International Film Festival, carrying the distinction of being the first ever Canadian documentary to be given that honour.

Through interviews with the Toronto-born Robertson, who is one of only two remaining members of the five person group, as well as a good deal of archival footage, the film charts The Band’s progression from being backup musicians for Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan – they were on tour with him when he went electric and started getting booed at every show – to branching out and starting their own group. The film documents their time living together at a pink house in Woodstock, which inspired their classic album Music From Big Pink, as well as the problems with drug and alcohol addiction that plagued the other members of the group and threatened to tear them apart.

Robertson’s close partnership with Arkansas-born lead singer Levon Helm, a relationship that turned increasingly sour over the years due to disputes regarding songwriting credits, also informs a good deal of the story. The Band famously came together for one final tour together in 1976, culminating with a miraculous, star-studded last concert that was documented by Martin Scorsese in his 1978 film The Last Waltz, which remains an indelible snapshot of this group’s ability to make timeless music together.

This film is propped up by complimentary interviews with Hawkins and other musicians including Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen, who were influenced by the music of The Band, as well as Scorsese, who both appears as a subject and executive produced the project. It’s also notably quite well edited, with beautifully done montages of old pictures cut in time to music that are very moving to watch. Featuring a nostalgic new song of the same name by Robertson, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band serves as an in-depth and well made look at one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

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