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FILM REVIEW Soundtracking a generation

A new documentary shows why The Band were so influential in shaping the course of popular music from the 1960s on, says IAN SINCLAIR

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
Directed by Daniel Roher
4*

“WE HAD been on the front lines of two or three musical revolutions,” Robbie Robertson explains towards the end of this new documentary about the celebrated Canadian-US musical group The Band.

Comprised of Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboards, accordion), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Richard Manuel (keyboards, vocals) and Robertson (guitar, vocals), The Band started out as The Hawks, the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s for whom, amazingly, Robertson was writing songs at the age of 15.

They then backed Bob Dylan on his electrifying 1966 world tour before moving to upstate New York and changing the popular musical landscape a second time with Dylan on The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967, and on their own debut, Music From The Big Pink, a year later.

“The old, weird America” was the phrase cultural critic Greil Marcus coined to describe the folk-country-roots music on the former album, marking a break from the often bloated psychedelic rock music dominant at the time.

Inspired by Robertson’s own memoir, the film is anchored by excerpts of an interview with the now-wise septuagenarian. With Danko, Helm and Manuel all dead and Hudson presumably choosing not to participate, the other band members appear only in archival interviews.

This provides a somewhat one-sided take on events and, although Robertson comes across as a thoughtful and fair-minded witness, one wonders how the others felt about the drug addiction and various bust-ups, especially the controversy over songwriting credits that angered Helm so much.

Interviews with high-profile contemporaries and fans, including Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal provide context and some quotable lines. Hawkins’s testimony is the most colourful: remembering when Robertson joined his backing band, Hawkins says he told the then teenaged guitar player he wouldn’t be paid a lot but promised him “more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”

The narrative concludes with the group’s legendary 1976 concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz a couple of years later.

Most of all it is The Band’s music that shines brightest. From the hippie biblical anthem The Weight to the Bach-influenced Chest Fever and the pulsating The Shape I’m In, their songs soundtracked a generation.

As Springsteen notes: “There is no band that emphasises becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band.”

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

 

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