'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band': Film Review | TIFF 2019

David Gahr/Courtesy of TIFF
An engaging if well-travelled musical journey.

Daniel Roher's colorful rockumentary portrait of Bob Dylan's former backup band opens this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

At initial glance, a roots outfit whose music has become synonymous with Americana wouldn’t seem like the logical choice to open a Canadian film festival.

Then again, not all bands were The Band, the influential quintet whose intensely focused frontman happened to be the Toronto-born son of Dolly, an Indigenous mother of Mohawk extraction, and a “Hebrew gangster” father named Alexander Klegerman.

That’s just one of the colorful tidbits provided by Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a lively, introspective documentary kicking off the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and made by young Toronto-based filmmaker Daniel Roher with the blessings of Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brain Grazer, all of whom came aboard as executive producers.

Although, structurally speaking, the production follows a safely familiar path, it doesn’t require a lot of fancy footwork when you’ve got an enthusiastic on-camera fan base including Bruce Springsteen, Scorsese, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal and Van Morrison, a terrific storytelling arc, a treasure trove of archival footage and, naturally, those iconic songs.

Beyond TIFF, where the opening-night audience members of a certain age will eagerly soak up all those late '60s/early '70s vibes, the market would seem to be less assured, although it would be a no-brainer sharing the marquee with Scorsese's The Last Waltz at rep theaters.

With first-person narration handled by the 76-year-old Robertson, serving as candid curator, the film tracks his trek from playing guitar and writing songs for Canada-based rockabilly act Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks at the age of 15 — a period during which he formed a bond with drummer Levon Helm — to the bandmembers striking out on their own when they found themselves gravitating more to R&B and the blues.

By the time Bob Dylan hired Robertson and his fellow Hawks to go on tour with him, the golden opportunity was tarnished by the nightly booing from angry fans who felt betrayed by Dylan going electric, leading a demoralized Helm to temporarily quit the band.

But soon after the experience, they’d find their signature sound in a secluded ugly pink house nestled in Woodstock, New York, building a studio in the basement, where Dylan would often hang out (yielding The Basement Tapes) and would give rise to The Band’s seminal 1968 album Music From Big Pink.

With success inevitably came the eventual dissension, and the five guys who always felt more like brothers than bandmates would succumb to a familiar discord fueled by the usual drugs, alcohol, ego and resentment, as Robertson and Garth Hudson (The Band’s only surviving members) struggled to hold the group together.

While the film takes on an escapable Behind the Music tone at this point, it nevertheless manages to land a rousing encore in the form of extensive footage from the Scorsese-directed souvenir of their 1976 farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.

And if director Roher adopts a respectful fan's-eye view toward his subjects rather than attempting to take more artistic chances, the approach yields some intriguing observations from his lineup of interviewees — including Clapton, who, having moved from band to band, regretfully “never had a sense of brotherhood” like the one experienced by Robertson and the boys.

Also providing some key perspective is Robertson’s French-Canadian ex-wife, Dominique, with whom he had three children.

But the last word is, naturally, left to Robertson — the film derives its inspiration from his 2016 memoirs, Testimony — whose original post-Last Waltz intention was to take some time to take care of the other group members, then to regroup and record another album.

“Everybody just forgot to come back,” reflects Robertson. Once Were Brothers serves as a valuable reminder of what The Band left behind.

Production companies: White Pine Pictures, Bell Media Studios, Diamond Docs, Imagine Documentaries, Universal Music Canada, Shed Creative
With: Robbie Robertson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison
Director: Daniel Roher
Producers: Andrew Munere, Stephen Paniccia, Sam Sutherland, Lana Belle Mauro
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Randy Lennox, Peter Raymont, Dave Harris, Jared Levine, Jeffrey Remedios, Justin Wilkes, Sara Bernstein, Michael Levine, Steve Ord, Paul Crowder, Mark Monroe, Meredith Kaulfers
Director of photography: Kiarash Sadigh
Production designers: Stephen Trivieri, Linden Li
Editors: Eamonn O’Connor, Daniel Roher
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentation)
Sales: White Pine Pictures

100 minutes