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Once Were Brothers: Robby Robertson And The Band
What I know about the music group The Band is learned mostly from a couple of different areas: the internet (because why not?) and Martin Scorsese's excellent The Last Waltz which highlighted their farewell concert. And I know of some of frontman Robbie Robertson's solo work since then, but I did not have much more of an inkling past that, so I hoped to get a bigger picture when watching Once Were Brothers, a documentary that attempts to cover him and the group he was notable for forming.
Scorsese serves as Executive Producer of and appears in the film; Brian Grazer and Ron Howard also get EP credits for the film directed by Daniel Roher and inspired by Robertson's 2016 autobiography "Testimony." The film features contemporary interviews with Robertson, his wife and friends, along with vintage interview footage with the musicians no longer with us. In the film, Robertson talks about growing up with an indigenous mother, while being shielded from the real identity of his father until he was a teenager. But he also talked about finding music and not turning back; he eventually became close with musician Ronnie Hawkins and his band The Hawks. Robertson would eventually meet drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardists Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, and would eventually form The Band. Robertson talks about his friendship and collaboration with Bob Dylan before getting to the breakaway material, and talks about recording and performing with the rest of the quintet, recounting the highs and lows, and recounts the losses of some of the members. The film spends little on Robertson's solo career, seemingly as to know that if you are watching Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, and you get just that.
If there were something I took away from Once Were Brothers, it's that music within Robbie Robertson's life had and has means so much. The film shows his recollection on discovering rock music like Little Richard and Elvis, and the joy he has in talking about what he thought about it a half dozen decades later remains palpable. He knew when he was a kid that was it, and it's stayed with him since.
It's remained a constant in his life as well; the joy of playing with Helm and seeing him before meeting him is just as relatable, and working with Dylan during his electric period and the stories of the fan behavior to same are fun to check out as well. When things move on to The Band, he recounts how well they were able to work and put out music that people enjoyed. He also talked a little wistfully about how drugs became more and more prevalent within the group, within the tact of how it impacted the creation of music. What I got from that portion of the film was that Robertson believed that music would have managed to kickstart the addicted members out of their habits (foolishly or not), hence the inspiration for that last concert, a feeling that everyone loved, and never wanted to end until it did.
Once Were Brothers is sweet, and heartbreaking and funny, and more than that it serves as a look into a group and an artist that people had an idea of, but appreciate more now; I almost immediately blindly purchased "Testimony" to learn even more, assuming that's possible. I am not entirely sure that Once Were Brothers will win a lot of awards and I do not totally think it will win documentary awards, but if the goal was to get more people into a music genre they may have missed or not realized, it handles that job with ease.
Once Were Brothers juggles 8mm and 16mm, video, stills and a bunch of other stuff nicely, with the stills breathing a sense of life into the material being discussed. The modern interviews include good color reproduction and dark blacks against the backdrop of where the subjects are, and the modern material looks good, as does the stuff of the era, and Robertson's pictures of his mother look exceptional as a reference. It was a little refreshing!
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack for the film is good; the interviews sound fine given the context of the setting, and the music sounds clear, particularly during The Last Waltz, where dynamic range is a little broader and more powerful, even as the studio recordings go through playback too.
Was kind of hoping for more, disappointed that there wasn't.
I had some knowledge of Robbie Robertson and The Band before watching Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, and I got the reason they came together, the reason they broke up and throughout, the slim Canadian born guitarist who just wanted to play music and make some of his own in the process, and the film looks at that as unequivocally as it can. Technically the film is fine, but could have used some bonus material on the disc. But it is a solid watch for music fans.