Four Decades Later, “The Last Waltz” Gets a Spiritual Prequel

"Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" shows the group's rise and fall

"Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band"
"Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" (Magnolia)

In one of the opening segments of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, 76-year-old Robertson offers a brief thought about what befell the iconic group he helped found in the late 1960s.

“What we built was a beautiful thing,” Robertson tells the camera. “So beautiful, it went up in flames.”

Over the next 100 minutes or so, Canadian director Daniel Roher recounts how that came to pass, with Robertson serving as the primary storyteller.

Using a combination of archival footage, old photos and new interviews with musicians including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel and Robertson himself, Roher documents how The Band — Levon Helm (drums), Rick Danko (bass), Richard Manuel (keyboards), Garth Hudson (multi-instrumentalist) and Robertson (guitar) — went from backing up Bob Dylan after he went electric to recording their 1968 debut album Music from Big Pink in Woodstock, NY, to having their 1976 farewell concert filmed by Martin Scorsese for The Last Waltz. (Scorcese, along with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, is an executive producer of the new film.)

Using Robertson’s 2016 autobiography Testimony: A Memoir as its base, Once Were Brothers offers intimate details about the manner in which The Band nurtured their fame while living in Woodstock, as well as the drug dependencies that took root there. It also delves into the rifts which developed between Robertson and his bandmates (most notably Helm) that would eventually cause the group to disband.

Selected as the opener at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Once Were Brothers also served as the opening-night film for the documentary festival DOC NYC, which began in New York this month.

The Band: L-R:- Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson. (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

At the opening of DOC NYC, Robertson talked about being introduced to Roher for the first time more than 2.5 years ago.

“I met with Daniel and you could feel something,” Robertson said. “At one point I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute, how old are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m 24.’ I thought, ‘Good. Good because I was 24 when I made Music from Big Pink with The Band … You take a shot on something like that. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you have a feeling … You could tell, this thing could flourish. This thing could turn into one of those magical things.”

Some of the magic in the film is provided by the photos Roher was able to source, many of which came from the collection of Elliott Landy, who spent time with the group while they were recording and living in Woodstock. At the DOC NYC premiere, Roher described how he got Landy, who is also in the film, involved.

“Elliott was the guy who shot the band,” Roher said.”The iconic look of the group, sort of the old western inspiration that the group is known for, that was because of Elliot’s creative vision. For me, making a documentary is very much a question of trying to leave no stone unturned. I was a pain in Elliot Landy’s ass for like a year and a half. Going over to his house every six months and begging him to see his negatives until, very reluctantly, he let me take a look through that material.”

At the premiere, Robertson revealed how Landy came into the fold.

“We lived in up in the mountains in Woodstock with Bob Dylan and Albert Grossman and everybody and we didn’t want anybody coming in,” he said. “We didn’t want anybody walking on our lawn. And we invited Elliot Landy in and he was the only one that came in and saw what was really going on. He was part of the family.”

To see how that family formed, grew and eventually became dysfunctional, see Once Were Brothers when it opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on February 21 or nationwide on February 28, 2020.

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