Review: 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band' documents a dream gone up in smoke

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

It's Bruce Springsteen who says it best: "It was like you'd never heard them before and like they'd always been there forever and ever."

Springsteen is talking about the Band, a dazzling group that for a brief period in the late 1960s used a combination of rock, country and blues to jump-start the Americana sound and set the popular music world on its ear. Then, seemingly just as suddenly, they were gone.

The story of the rise and disintegration of the Band turns out to be as compelling as its spectacular music, and it's good to have the tale told and the group's formidable sounds heard one more time, in the documentary "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band," directed by Daniel Roher.

As the title indicates, this is the group's story from the point of view of Robertson, its most prolific songwriter and the man whose post-Band career has been the most noteworthy, and while that situation is inevitable, it's not quite ideal.

Inevitable because not only is Robertson the band member most comfortable with what Joni Mitchell called "the star maker machinery behind the popular song," but three of his bandmates (Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel) have died, and the fourth, Garth Hudson, is very much not comfortable in the public eye.

But though he is in effect the last man standing, Robertson and his comrades did not see eye to eye toward the end, and though "Brothers" acknowledges that situation, giving him pride of place invariably unbalances the film.


Add to that the not surprising deference the 25-year-old director shows to a 76-year-old superstar with a willingness to self-mythologize, and regretting that the other Band members could not be seen and heard more than they are in archival interview clips is unavoidable.'

But it is a measure of the singularity of the Band's story, and the way their music remains such a tonic to experience, that "Brothers" still demands to be seen.

Just watching and listening to the group tearing through their classic "Up on Cripple Creek" near the documentary's opening, alive with the pleasure of making great music with one another, is enough to joyously lift you out of your seat.

Because "Once Were Brothers" also functions as a Robertson biography, we begin with tales of his Toronto background as the child of a mother born on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and a Jewish gambler who died before he was born.


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