The meteoric rise to fame of roots-rock group The Band in the late-’60s and early-’70s was rivaled only by Beatlemania – this according to commentary in Daniel Roher’s new documentary, Once Were Brothers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted quintet climbed the charts behind incomparable chemistry, brilliant instrumentals, equally impressive lyrics from guitarist Robbie Robertson and arrangements from Levon Helm.
The Band, comprised of Helm (drums, vocals), Robertson (guitar), Rick Danko (bass guitar, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals) and Garth Hudson (organ), was not immune to the internal drama that plagued many supergroups, thus scattering the original lineup and disrupting what had been a steady output of hit-making albums by 1976. Still, by the mid-’70s, the group had released hits like “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Ophelia,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “It Makes No Difference,” among others.
Once Were Brothers, which is anchored by Robertson, one of just two living original members, casts light on the inner workings of this wildly successful group. The film, based partially on Robertson’s 2017 memoir Testimony, outlines the band’s formation, their height of fame and subsequent hiatus. Roher masterfully weaves together The Band’s complex narrative, backed by engaging b-roll from the group that had taken refuge in a basement at a secluded home in the Catskills, “Big Pink” (nestled in the woods of Woodstock, N.Y.)
Where Roher’s work excels is in its scrupulous presentation of the group’s early days – from their first onstage experience as backing musicians to rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, to the Big Pink Basement Tapes, their first national tour, and even their offstage struggles. With input from other stars and Band fans Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Hawkins, and others, the film is an impressive testament to the group’s legacy. Where the work appears to lack is in its post-Last Waltz days; this came after the band dispersed following their Martin Scorsese-filmed celebratory show in San Francisco in 1976.
The reason for the latter is the departure of Robertson, the lyrical mastermind, who had left New York State for Malibu and took his talents to film scores and solo work. Today, with Helm, Danko, and Manuel having passed on, the documentary naturally lacks commentary from that rhythm section, which certainly still anchored the group. Thus, there is no real rebuttal to Robertson’s departure and the ensuing copyright controversy that came to a head in the ’90s after Helm released his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band.
Nevertheless, the nicely edited musical snippets that bookend this film are remarkable, with an insightful voiceover from Robertson surrounding his trip to the Mississippi Delta as a teen, along with his often-complex experience with the group. Robertson alleges heavy drug and alcohol usage among some of the group’s core members, which began to slow the music-making process and complicated the members’ relationships. Roher weaves this narrative into the film with ease, taking an emotional and chronological approach to their many ups and downs prior to The Last Waltz.
The film seems to come to an abrupt halt after “Waltz,” as Robertson departed for other creative opportunities. Yet, The Band subsequently regrouped in the ’80s with a new lineup and toured well into the ’90s. Input on their later years – and Hall of Fame induction – would have been welcomed.
Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the work is must-see viewing, especially for fans of the group. Viewers come away with a deeper understanding of the five musicians who left an indelible mark on music, and, through Helm and others, pioneered the entire Americana genre.
Top moments include Roher’s sampling of their time at “Big Pink,” the peculiar response to backing Bob Dylan and the creative process for Music from Big Pink and the self-titled sophomore album. Combined, Once Were Brothers is visceral and wonderfully organized – a harmonious musical picture that fills a dire need to retell the early days and peak success of one of the most important 20th-century groups.
Upon viewing, expect raw emotion, a thrilling collection of The Band’s biggest hits and no shortage of familial disputes.
“Once Were Brothers” hits select theaters on Feb. 21, 2020.
Photo: The Band, 1969 (Getty Images)