Once Were Brothers: Reflections on Rock ‘n’ Roll revisionism

By James Cullingham

I first saw The Band at Massey Hall in January 1970 when I was a Toronto high school student. It was a highly anticipated comeback show just around the corner from the bars and strip clubs they had played when they were known as The Hawks.

The Band’s sound drew on Appalachian music, Country & Western, Delta and Chicago blues, rockabilly, R&B and Indigenous musical forms that powerhouse guitarist and principal songwriter Robbie Robertson grew up with. Even with all these influences, at its best, this band sounded only like The Band. As Bruce Springsteen says, “they were loaded for bear” because in bassist Rick Danko, drummer Levon Helm and pianist Richard Manuel, The Band possessed three singers who could have sang lead for any group. The combination of their voices is still thrilling decades after they cut The Band’s records. In keyboardist and saxophonist Garth Hudson, The Band also featured a singularly brilliant musician equally steeped in Christian church music, jazz and experimental forms.

In 2019, the saga is being revisited through Robertson’s eyes. Once Were Brothers – Robbie Robertson and The Band directed by Daniel Roher launched the Toronto International Film Festival. It is the first Canadian documentary to be so chosen. Robertson was on hand for the premiere. Toronto Mayor John Tory presented him with a key to the city where he grew up. (Full disclosure: I was briefly consulted by Roher and one of the film’s executive producers Peter Raymont in the film’s pre-production phase.)

Once Were Brothers begins with funky black and white old timey titles on a decayed background. It’s a fitting salute to the particularly vintage stylistic emphasis of a halcyon period of creation for The Band comprised of four Canadians, – Robertson, Danko, Hudson and Manuel – plus Arkansas-born Helm. The members of the Hawks and The Band produced some profoundly influential records and also played with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, New York-based bluesman John Hammond Jr. and, most famously, with Bob Dylan.

What was described in 1976 as their farewell concert in San Francisco was filmed by Martin Scorcese and released to prominence as the documentary The Last Waltz. Scorcese is now an executive producer on Once Were Brothers, a senior partner in a production team that includes White Pine Pictures of Toronto. He too attended the TIFF premiere.

At its start, the film holds much promise and verve. Archival photos, vintage footage and clips from a who’s who of rock luminaries including Eric Clapton and Springsteen are skilfully interweaved with Robertson’s own testimony to recount the story of The Band. It’s entertaining stuff, but it must be said there’s nothing new here to fans of The Band and devotees of 1960s and 70s music. There is some repetition from The Last Waltz both in stage performances and in hoary old rock guy stories such as Ronnie Hawkins’s recruiting pledge to the young Robertson which involved references to Frank Sinatra and female genitalia. Enough said.

Robertson’s ex-wife, Dominique Robertson engagingly recounts her memories of The Band and life in Woodstock, the upstate New York town where the group developed its sound while frequently jamming and sometimes recording with Bob Dylan.

So far so good. Then there are issues…

Roher appropriately salutes Music From Big Pink, The Band’s astonishingly timeless first album. This sequence tells the tale with commentary from Robertson, the aforementioned rock heavyweights and others. It might be undermined for some however by a dubious selection of music. Rockin’ Chair, written by Robertson, is used prominently. The track is not on Music From Big Pink. It was not recorded in Woodstock. The song appears on The Band’s self-titled second album which was recorded in Los Angeles in the pool house of a home once lived in by Hollywood greats such as Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr.

Problems continue. Perhaps most egregiously Robertson suggests that The Band meant to get back together after The Last Waltz, but never did. The film fails to note other members of The Band reunited without Robertson. This reviewer saw them open for The Grateful Dead at Kingswood Music Theatre north of Toronto in June 1984. I recall a looser, more swinging and harder edged performance that was, to these ears, more fun than some of the shows I’d seen The Band play with Robertson. Not only did the group continue to tour, the remaining members also recorded. The Band sans Robertson released Jericho, High On The Hog and Jubilation. Jericho is a particularly fine album that includes original compositions and a definitive version of one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, Blind Willie McTell.

At moments in Once Were Brothers Robertson seems to indulge in revisionism. He claims audiences hated the shows on which Dylan “went electric” backed by The Hawks. It’s a legendary moment in rock history. Some chroniclers and attendees have questioned just how unanimous the animus was. As with Dylan’s first electric foray with New York session musicians and members of the Paul Butterfield Blues band at the 1965 Newport Festival where some folk purists, including Pete Seeger, were appalled, others were excited by the new sound. That particular episode has been ably chronicled by cultural historian Dennis McNally in On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom. Barney Hoskyns’ research in Across The Great Divide – The Band and America reveals considerable hostility, but also admiration from some fans and critics for what Dylan and The Hawks concocted.

Robertson and the film go to some length to document a disagreement about authorship between Helm and Robertson. Once Were Brothers provides Robertson’s gloss on the songwriting imbroglio. Helm wanted more shared credits because he and other members of The Band claim they helped to arrange songs Robertson brought to rehearsals and recording sessions that were then fleshed out by the group. It’s an oft contested matter in song writing. In 1993 Hoskyns wrote, “Robertson’s songwriting credits remain a matter of some contention, and it is hard to believe that a similar ‘unit’ working today would divide up publishing royalties quite so unevenly.” Hoskyns also quotes Robertson acknowledging Garth Hudson coming to his aid in completing songs thanks to Hudson’s deep musicality. The songwriting tensions apparently became a friendship killing issue between Helm and Robertson.

To my mind, the film cries out for a deeper, more skeptical and thoughtful approach. Perhaps Hudson, the other surviving member of The Band, could have provided insight. He barely appears in the film and only in what I believe is an archival clip.

Once Were Brothers also delves into Helm’s temporary heroin addiction. To the unaware, the film could leave the impression that Helm, who died in 2012, left this sphere as a bitter, sad case. That’s an inaccurate disservice.

In addition to continuing to play with The Band after Robertson left, Helm produced celebrated solo records, including Dirt Farmer which won a Grammy Award. He produced This Wheels On Fire – Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, an acclaimed autobiography. Helm was also an actor on films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter in which he was cast as Loretta Lynn’s father. As a musician and bandleader, Helm garnered new fame as the curator of Arkansas-style musical ‘rambles’ at which artists performed and jammed. He remained a galvanizing touring musician.

His 2010 Toronto performance with a stellar band at Massey Hall, which I attended, was a tour de force featuring repertoire by John Hiatt, Willie Dixon, Grateful Dead composing duo Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia and Robbie Robertson. Once Were Brothers is Robertson’s film told through his eyes and memory, but a narrative that ignores Helm’s continued association with The Band after The Last Waltz, and obscures his accomplished solo career, undermines the affection and respect Robertson claims to hold for his former ‘brother.’

Films make choices. This one has a singular silence that might be seen as a lost opportunity to thicken matters. Robertson is a Mohawk Jewish man from Toronto whose songwriting, particularly with The Band, mines the legends and mythology of the Appalachian region and American deep south. In this era of concerns about cultural appropriation and authenticity of voice, Once Were Brothers has nothing to say about the issue. I am appreciative that Robertson wrote so many terrific songs. I left the film wondering what he thinks about his own acts of appropriation.

Robertson and the filmmakers choose to celebrate his Canadian identity. However, it might be interesting to contemplate whether Robertson, along with other musical expats like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, has become more Californian than Canadian.

Roher focuses on Robertson’s experience and memories of The Band. What of his compelling, if uneven, solo output since the 1980s? What about his work with Indigenous musicians in Canada and the United States that taps into his Mohawk origins? This would have been new, rather than a re-hash of information and perspective that’s in The Last Waltz.

I wonder if this film highlights potential problems of allowing one’s subject to, in effect, author the piece. The narrative is driven by clips from interviews with Robertson holding forth uninterrupted and unchallenged. At times, the film seems self-serving, a salute to Robertson’s vision that veers into hagiography, rather than succeeding as inquiry. It has virtues, but is not a penetrating look at a great artist in all of his complexity.

Once Were Brothers is, above all, a slick re-statement of Robertson’s account of his life and history of The Band. It has technical savvy and celebrates some great music, but its argument suffers from omissions and intellectual thinness. Ultimately, it’s a squandered opportunity to delve rigorously into a fascinating character and a fundamentally important moment in the history of North American popular music.

James Cullingham is a filmmaker, historian and journalist with Tamarack Productions and a part time instructor with the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies at Trent University based in Nogojiwanong – Peterborough ON. Cullingham has a deep background in musical documentaries. He was story consultant on Festival Express which included The Band. Cullingham produced and directed In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey and Jim Galloway – A Journey in Jazz.

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3 thoughts on “Once Were Brothers: Reflections on Rock ‘n’ Roll revisionism

  1. Whitney Smith

    Though focusing on this specific film, Cullingham’s excellent review is also a welcome little survey of the debilitating flood, for truth’s sake, in non-fiction filmmaking It is that of the non-objective, non-journalistic (in the pure let’s-hear-from-both-sides sense), self-serving, promotional or adulatory genre of documentary where the subject or his or her relatives and the filmmaker are in bed together — yet they expect the viewer to think otherwise. ‘Fake documentary,’ perhaps? As Cullingham suggests, the 26 year-old filmmaker here, Daniel Roher, appears to have been easy prey for Robertson and his purposes: seal the RR legacy and — since the maintenance of that legacy has commercial consequences, too — the RR brand. Perhaps a more honest approach, for this film and others like it, is for the filmmaker to make clear that his approach is solely or somewhat autobiographical; if so, at least we know what we’re getting when a subject writes his own story. On the Levon Helm issue, it’s important that Cullingham leans into this, since Helm’s musical knowledge and ‘feel’ was, I believe, a guiding force in the The Band’s sound and approach to every song they played. As talented as the four Canadians were, his immanent sense of American roots music history is heard in everything The Band recorded. Too bad Robertson went for the money rather than, however possible, spread the wealth. In the legal sense, arranging a song is not writing it; George Harrison’s luminous guitar arrangements in Beatles songs are merely him doing his work as a lead instrumentalist. If we dispense with legal definitions, in an ensemble such as The Band where each of its players is deeply integral to the whole (as Cullingham proves with the importance of the three vocalists and Hudson’s talent), Robertson failed for reasons of ego, greed or miserliness to appreciate the true spirit of the brotherhood he was so fortunate to be apart of. Perhaps it’s not too late for Robbie to be, in some small way, his brothers’ keeper.

  2. Robin Smith

    I was at the 1966 Liverpool concert with Bob & The Hawks. And, yes, there were a good number of people who only wanted to see Bob the folk singer, and they were vocal. But there was a very large number of people who were intrigued by the electric portion of the show and really enjoyed it. For Robertson to say everybody hated it, is patently false. The B-side of the single “I want you” (Just like Tom Thumb’s Blues) was recorded at that concert and you won’t here any boos on the record. Definitely revisionism going on here.

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