I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
We’re in the era of the classic rock music documentary. In the last year we’ve seen films detailing the lives of Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby and the singer-songwriters of Southern California. This film genre is continuing with the release of “Once We Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.” The film was first shown last October at the Toronto Film Festival. It had a limited release last weekend, with a wider drop on Friday.
Based on Robertson’s autobiography “Testimony”, the film tells the story of the legendary rock group “The Band.” The problem is the film is one sided. What you heard was the story of Robbie Robertson. When the film ended, you felt like the group was one guy, Robertson, with his four back up players.
The story of The Band has been told many times. Five young kids who got their musical start backing up Ronnie Hawkins. They broke out on their own and moved up by backing up Bob Dylan. Next was making their own records. Their first two albums “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band” are legendary. The Band was making Americana music decades before it became fashionable.
As with so many rock bands of that era, drug and alcohol addictions was a main factor in tearing them apart. While Robertson indulged in this, he wasn’t in as deep as his band mates, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Tired of being a babysitter and touring life, Robertson pulled the plug on The Band. They did go out with a bang, ending with the Thanksgiving 1976 concert, “The Last Waltz.”
When they regrouped a few years later, Robertson wasn’t a part of the reformation. He moved on making his own music, scoring films for Martin Scorsese, and raising his family. The original members of The Band never played together again.
That’s the basics of The Band’s story. It gets deeper because of the feud between Robertson and Helm over songwriting credits and money. It’s a feud that’s pretty much one sided on Helm’s part, which he took to his grave.
All these stories are told in the film…mostly with Robbie Robertson as the narrator. He not only tells the stories, but he makes judgments about them. By the end of the groups run, he made it seem like he and keyboardist Garth Hudson were the only ones doing any of the work.
The sad part is there is no one around to defend the other members of The Band. Richard Manuel died in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999 and Levon Helm in 2012. All we hear are their voices in older clips. Also, not a word from the other surviving member, Garth Hudson, who isn’t interested in reliving the past. Like stated earlier, this is purely a Robbie Robertson production.
It’s not all bad…there are interviews with Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. They talk about the greatness of The Band and their influence on their own musical journey. There’s also enough music in the film that it’ll whet your appetite to go old school and pull out some of their albums.
How you’ll feel at the end of this film depends on your feeling about Robbie Robertson. Most fans of The Band take a side. It’s either Robbie or Levon. If you’re a fan of Robertson’s, you’ll love this look at his life and career. If you’re on Levon’s side, it’ll grow your bitterness towards Robbie.
Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny
And (and) (and) you put the load right on me
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