Robbie Robertson describes songwriting as a jigsaw puzzle, which is similar to how the Once Were Brothers documentary comes together. The good and the bad parts of Canadian rock group, the Band’s, journey fit into one heart-wrenchingly beautiful tale.
“Oh, once we’re brothers, brothers no more, we lost a connection, after the war,” Robbie Robertson sings in the documentary opening, an ode to the Band growing together, then apart, a foreshadowing of the story that’s about to unfold. Knowing how it all will end, however, doesn’t make it any less difficult to absorb or painful to watch. Memories of the Band through vintage footage give the film a nostalgic feel, while interviews with such icons as Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, and Martin Scorsese give it depth of perspective.
Robertson is a stable presence throughout the film, still displaying a sincere love and genuine admiration for his “brothers,” Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm. He talks about his creative process, in that, he doesn’t have one. Robertson found his way to music from a young age, instantly feeling a sense of belonging playing guitar with his relatives at an Indian reserve. When his parents gifted him with a cowboy painted guitar, Robertson knew it was his calling. But, Robertson also recalled the tough parts of his upbringing, namely discovering that his abusive father was not, in fact, his father and that his real father was deceased. Influenced by what he describes as his personal Big Bang, an influx of new musicians like Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, Robertson dropped out of school and played with Ronnie Hawkins’ rockabilly band, writing songs like ‘Hey Boba Lou’ and ‘Someone Like You,’ before meeting Helm and later the other members of the Band.
Reminiscing over the Band, 76-year-old Robertson says it was “so beautiful, it went up in flames.” Only teenagers when the group was formed, a powerful brotherhood blossomed as the men grew together and supported one another. Touring with Bob Dylan, the Band withstood negative reception from the crowd every night. Robertson remembers their later ‘Big Pink’ era fondly, when the Band lived together in a pink house in Woodstock, New York, a sanctuary giving them freedom to write and create their unique brand of Americana music.
Taking on a melancholy tone in the latter half, the film tells of the rift that forms between Robertson and The Band when members start abusing drugs and alcohol. It speaks candidly about struggles with addiction and alcoholism, notably when Manuel had a car accident under the influence with Robertson’s wife Dominique and Helm hit a police car en route to help them. At that pivotal moment, the Band’s bond took a hit too, and it was difficult to put back together again. But, there were light and humorous moments throughout the film too, like when the Band brought a hypnotist to cure Robertson of an illness before a performance, who hypnotizes him by saying the word “grow.”
You can’t help but feel the pain in the Band’s faces during their 1976 farewell concert, knowing that the chapter they knew well for 16 years was closing. The Band wanted to come back together, Robertson says, everybody just forgot to come back. In a sentimental moment, Robertson narrates his intimate final encounter with former best friend Helm with whom he had a long-time feud, remembering times past as he held his hand in the hospital. As the film comes to an end, a commemoration to Helm, Manuel, and Danko appears on the screen, moving the theater to silence. It was difficult not to imagine how the film would have differed had the three members been alive to tell their sides of the story.
Directed by Daniel Roher, Once Were Brothers opens Feb. 28 in Angelika Film Center & Café in Plano and Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre.