Once Were Brothers
Review by Peter VineyWritten for The Band web site, May 2020
Thanks to Jan for the opportunity to review this via a link (which is now closed!) I watched it twice, once right through, then again pausing to make notes.
When you’ve been listening to The Band for fifty-two years, and writing extensively about them for over half that time too, it’s difficult to equate to a universal viewpoint on a documentary. I watched it with my wife, Karen, and so I’ll offer the first summary to her, as someone who has never followed the alleged Levon-Robbie feud.
Her first word was “mesmerizing” followed by saying that Daniel Roher’s assembly, pace and cutting of images was poetic. She felt the overpowering central theme was the relationship between Robbie and Levon, who she assumed were the “brothers” in the title. I pointed out that all five were referred to as “brothers.” Karen knew that but added, in that case, Robbie and Levon are the twin brothers. She also pointed out that the only (just about) full song is the closing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, from The Last Waltz, certainly Levon’s greatest musical appearance on film, and that Levon sings Ophelia over the credits. No one can say Levon gets side-lined.
Ophelia … uh, oh, how the sub-conscious can come up. Followers of The Band may recall a review of the reunited Band, the line up without Robbie, as “Hamlet without the prince.” Hamlet and Ophelia? I don’t know how far you want to take that story, but look what happened to Ophelia in the play.
Robbie is always at pains to point out that The Band was all five musicians as a team. Levon jumped ship on the 1965 Bob Dylan tour, missed the 1966 tour and was absent for almost all of the 1967 Basement Tapes era, including the early creative work on Music From Big Pink. This is why he only had one lead vocal (the others were spoken for) but on the other hand, that lead vocal was The Weight.
Why does the tension of dualities ring so powerfully with bands? Lennon v McCartney. Jagger v Richards. Once were brothers? Real brothers don’t do so well in getting on together in bands either … look at The Everly Brothers, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival or Dire Straits.
MY REVIEW then …
(BEWARE OF PLOT SPOILERS! Here’s one … The Band break up at the end of the film!)
The length (100 minutes) is ideal for the generally interested viewer. For the long-term Band fan, it’s very short, but Karen wasn’t into a marathon, so I’ll agree with her that they got the length right.
I liked the way they placed the interviewees static and kept Robbie Robertson seated in limited spaces throughout (after plugging in his guitar at the start). It’s become the appalling habit on the BBC to have to move a narrator to stand in front of whatever they’re talking about. So on the BBC News, they mention a police report, and the newsreader is made to go and stand outside Scotland Yard (which has all the lights turned off) in pouring rain. Then the next report is on something a Farmer’s Union official said, so a newsreader stands outside the darkened nondescript office block (which none of us recognize) to deliver the news. Daniel Roher didn’t do that. Instead they used archive film and stills intercut, or with voice over.
The main narrators are Robbie Robertson and Dominique Robertson. Dominique comes across very well. She saw it all, at a (short) distance. She knows the story. She’s clear and direct. She has the advantage that she’s delivering new points. Quite often, Robbie has to go over ground he’s covered before.
The comments are in two groups, stars and insiders. Inevitably the insiders are interesting, Jonathan Taplin, John Simon, Elliot Landy, John Scheele, Bill Scheele. They were there. I guess Jan Wenner and David Geffen fit this group.
George Semkiw from Ritchie Knight and the Mid-Knights, and Grant Smith tell of early days in Toronto.
Of the musicians, Ronnie Hawkins has the most interesting things to say, and has the delivery and timing even if you have heard ‘More pussy than Frank Sinatra’ many times before. Notice the cutting … Robbie starts that well-honed anecdote then it cuts to Ronnie to finish it. The Levon Helm clips are placed at just the right times as are the surprisingly previously unseen Richard Manuel clips.
John Hammond at last gets an important contribution (which he didn’t on the Last Waltz, but you couldn’t have put him after Muddy Waters, could you?)
George Harrison was a long time ago, and as with Eric Clapton, we know these stories if we’ve seen previous films and DVDs. Eric expands on them though and comes over very strongly.
Bruce Springsteen comes across the best of this group. What he says makes sense, and he has separately played with both Robbie (Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame) and Levon (Stone Pony).
I’d love to have heard more from Taj Mahal, both as a musicologist and as someone who saw them very early – and his cover of Bacon Fat is a unique Robbie Robertson-Garth Hudson writing credit (though we won’t delve into that one).
Peter Gabriel talks about getting it together in the country.
Van Morrison speaks twice, not especially interesting, and I’d have swopped them for extending the Caravan clip from The Last Waltz. Though actually, I would have asked him about 4% Pantomime even if no one may have wanted to mention The Band’s disappointing album Cahoots, and they didn’t.
Van doesn’t get on the poster advert, but Bob Dylan does. His interview contribution is blink and you’ll miss it BUT we do get good 1966 and Before The Flood tour footage.
I don’t think it will spoil it to run through it. The inspiration was Robbie’s autobiography, Testimony from 2016.
The number of images and clips is stunning. Footage you’ve never seen, photos you’ve never seen (and expertly cut to the beat of the backing too).
We once were brothers
That’s the first music we hear. Robbie was against printed lyrics for the first three albums. He liked the enigma. Logically it should be “After the Waltz …” (The Last Waltz) but however often I hear it, it sounds more like “war.” We lost our connection “after the war”? So, we know the running question of the “war” or the internal feud will be aired.
The first Band clip focusses on Up On Cripple Creek with Levon singing, and cuts to a Garth smile that lights up the room and will light up a cinema. The comments are Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton and Martin Scorsese and Taj Mahal coming in and out over the song. (BTW, for Marty, Scotch is a drink, not an adjective before the word ‘music’ – Scots or Scottish!)
Robbie: I was an only child, so this brotherhood was so powerful.
Then we get the film credits and Robbie talks about his childhood and storytelling. His personal family photos come in as well as archive film of Canada. Tales of the Six Nations reservation have a marvellous Robbie soundtrack.
We get to 1956 and the birth of rock and roll … tremendous Chuck Berry footage (Johnny B. Goode). There are photos of Robbie’s early bands. The best bits ae Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, with Ronnie starting to tell stories. The Ronnie Hawkins clip of Forty Days (with Levon on drums) is incredible stuff, and sadly all too short. Ronnie was an astonishing dancer. However, it’s Robbie’s joyous expression as he describes Levon on stage that sets out the tale to come. There’s Levon describing his start with Ronnie too. Robbie’s first composition, Hey Boba Lu comes in.
The biographical bits are from Testimony – read the book. This is the best bit of the book for me.
Then we get the trip to Arkansas to join The Hawks, and a clip of Levon describing the music there. The running background is Sonny Boy Williamson II on Help me. I’d never seen the picture of Robbie with bass guitar (his initial job) before.
Robbie: I depended on Levon to show me the road. He had grown in my eyes bigger than life. When he laughed, everybody laughed.
Ronnie Hawkins: They were the best friends you’d ever be. They were like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
Where did they find the blistering footage of Robbie playing a solo in 1961? This was one of several bits that made me want a DVD “Once Were Brothers: The full songs.” Levon describes how the Canadians came into the Hawks. Yet another bit you want more of is Richard Manuel talking about their search for perfection, and there’s another tantalisingly short piece from Rick Danko.
They skip pretty quickly to New York after leaving Ronnie. Enter Bob Dylan. A dizzying series of short clips of music, starting with Maggie’s Farm from Newport 1965. Weird, that was around in dreadful sound and picture quality for years, then decent footage just popped up a few years back. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues with The Hawks. Tell Me Mama, which I guess is from Paris. We get the booing story inevitably. The limo interior footage would be England. More! It’s a Vanden Plas Princess. Most major visiting bands used them, and I saw The Walker Brothers Vanden Plas limo deliberately dragged along a brick wall so they could open the car door right into a stage door. It was wrecked. Scott Walker decided he’d had enough when one got turned over by fans with him in it.
There’s so much that could be said of the departure of Levon from the Dylan 1965 tour in Washington DC. Robbie suggests he didn’t like Robbie being so close to Dylan. He also quotes what Levon later failed to say:
I don’t like this music. I don’t like these people, and I don’t want to be in anybody’s band. I want to go.
I’m sure that’s true. Robbie describes it very emotionally, to the backing of Dylan and Robbie in a hotel room playing. Levon had expanded on this in Modern Drummer in 1984 (I love Levon’s final line):
Levon Helm: I just didn’t want to go. We had played the American part and that part was pretty good. But back in those days when you played for some of the folk-purist crowds, the electric portion, which was us, would get all the booing and the hissing and stuff. After a while it wasn’t a whole lot of fun. It wasn’t like I was ready to go into hospital and give up or anything like that, but I figured maybe we should practise or something.
The rapid tour footage with Mickey Jones is set to Baby Let Me Follow You Down There are stories we don’t know or half-know. Robbie doesn’t mention this, but Mickey Jones had blagged the best pay rate in the group from Dylan, who had wanted him for some time. Dylan saw Mickey Jones with Johnny Rivers, and his drum part was essential to those Trini Lopez live albums. I’m not sure that Robbie is quite right in “We” had to get another drummer. They’d had two (Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff) before Mickey Jones, who was very much Dylan’s choice, and as it turned out ideal for the “Take no prisoners’ approach of that tour. George Harrison comes in this section – he was at the Albert Hall concert. Ballad of A Thin Man runs through.
Bob Dylan: In my books, they were gallant knights for even standing behind me.
Robbie then describes meeting Dominique in Paris. The US flag in earlier clips point to the Paris show. From here she becomes a narrator. It’s a lovely interplay of their early meetings, but I might not have used Je t’aime to back it. No plot spoilers, but I used to teach Quebecois students who had come to England to learn English. I had asked why they didn’t just go to Toronto to learn it, and they explained, ‘We didn’t want to go to CANADA!’ So I get the undercurrents.
The bit that interests me … what were they doing between May 1966 and March 1967 when they went up to Woodstock to join Bob Dylan, remains unexplored.
John Simon was virtually a sixth member for the first two Band albums, and so he should know. He tells us about their legendary manager, Albert Grossman. ‘Shrewd’ may be a euphemism. Again, it’s lovely on starting out in the basement of Big Pink. Robbie’s warm narrative voice draws you in. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere has so many still photos. Richard feeding the cat is memorable. They have an audio recording of Rick Danko over this. Kickin’ My Dog Around comes next. Million Dollar Bash accompanies “Untitled Experimental Film” Directed by Robbie Robertson. Again, more! They had cameras … probably Super 8 … and there’s both colour and black and white home movie footage from the Big Pink days.
A collage of Dominque photos accompanies a demo version of Caledonia Mission, with Rick Danko’s voice. Robbie describes sessions with a drummer in a studio (the Basement Tapes 1975 release stuff?) and introduces the return of Levon by describing the Hawks as ‘a table with one of the legs missing.’ Nice simile. Levon’s return is marked by Ain’t No More Cane, which Levon later said was the song where they discovered their harmonies. John Simon comes in and suggest returning was better than being on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. More could be said there … it has emerged that of his near two year absence, only a very short initial bit was on an oil rig. Again, there are stories of what he was doing with The Cate Bros and meeting up with The Wrecking Crew in LA that we’ll probably never know. And we DO get Garth Hudson’s voice here.
We Can Talk About It Now – one of my favourite Band songs has yet another wealth of Woodstock still photos. I liked the diner, which reminded me of how often a band of six will work out how to occupy two tables … Garth, Levon and Richard on one, Robbie, Dominique and Rick on the other.
Rick Danko: We’d done a lot of pre-production of course at Big Pink. Robbie was doing a lot of the songwriting and doing a lot more homework than the rest of us. It was just a question of us arranging them and putting them together.
In all those years when Robbie stayed silent in the face of all those feud accusations, he must have known of recordings like this which backed him up. He never used them. He’s excellent on naming The Band, and even more on the inspiration for The Weight, which plays to home movie footage and stills. Richard Manuel comes in over this.
Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Taj Mahal sum up hearing Music From Big Pink for the first time.
Taj Mahal: If there were any American musicians that were comparable to what The Beatles were, it would have been them.
Sorry, I hope the quotes aren’t spoilers and I’m trying to be sparing, but Taj said what I’ve been saying for fifty years. A subtle point, the accompanying music is To Kingdom Come. Lead vocal? Robbie.
There’s just a newspaper advert of the transition to The Band except we hear Rockin’ Chair. Elliot Landy reinforces They were five brothers that loved each other. This is an odd point to introduce the Big Pink centre photo.
Jonathan Taplin and Dominique describe Rick’s car accident. Then The Band album pops on screen … they call it Self-titled. Everyone else calls it The Brown Album.
I’ll dispute Peter Gabriel’s contention that they were the first band to get it together in a house in the country. Traffic were in their Berkshire, UK, country retreat in April 1967, the same time. A vague connection is that after the 1966 Birmingham show, Steve and Muff Winwood took Dylan and The Hawks to visit a haunted house near Kidderminster.
Up On Cripple Creek is interspersed with Jonathan Taplin, Martin Scorsese, Van Morrison and Jimmy Vivino commenting on Americana and myth, and it breaks into Across The Great Divide then Unfaithful Servant.
George Harrison and Bruce Springsteen pop in. Then we go into The Winterland story of Robbie’s illness and the hypnotist … I have an original flier on my office wall. I never expected them to have so many photos of this … then the Chest Fever intro. Is that Winterland footage? I doubt it.
Jonathan Taplin was their road manager – which I’d guess was managing rather than hefting speaker cabinets. He says the first year and a half on the road was amazing. Which encompasses the Royal Albert Hall recording … one I keep hoping they’ll release. The Slippin’ and Slidin’ footage has Richard on astonishing piano.
Eric Clapton has a lot to say on the dynamics within the Band. King Harvest is here – my choice if I could only have just one Band song. Eric brings up the issue of drinking and Richard, mentioning that Robbie would cut out of that. This is a subtle lead in to the next phase. Jonathan Taplin backs this up with Robbie’s family photos, and then the drugs get mentioned, then the sequence of car accidents.
I’ve looked at online comments, and there are Levon fans outraged at the drugs revelations. All I can say is that Levon is perfectly honest and clear about heroin in This Wheel’s On Fire and we can take that right through to Rick Danko’s 1990s Japan arrest which finished the 90s Band. Dominique on Richard Manuel and Levon’s car adventures is a powerful account, to new instrumental music. Robbie comments … start paying attention … it’s right back at this point that he is getting really pissed off.
Don’t Do It with horns would be the 1971 Academy of Music show. Watching Robbie’s Telecaster solo, I’m reminded of guitarists who will tell you it all started changing when he switched to Stratocaster. That’s way beyond my expertise.
Heroin comes in. Dominique explains that Robbie didn’t have the gene that makes someone become an addict. She hits the nail on the head. I often discussed this with a recovering alcoholic friend. Some people can drink or smoke or use on a daily basis, but addiction is different. My friend said that when he got rid of all the usual addictions, he got into going to the gym. Then he realized that he had to do more and more every day to produce the endorphins. As he explained, he soon got addicted to the exercise bike. He pointed at passing lycra-clad cyclists and said, ‘Do they realize they’re all addicts?’ He believed it was genetic.
Jonathan Taplin points out how over the first three albums, by Stage Fright, Robbie became the only songwriter. OK, not entirely true. Sleeping and Just Another Whistle Stop were co-writes with Richard Manuel, and Sleeping has that distinctive Richard melody. Robbie also states here that he loved writing with Richard. Strawberry Wine is one of Levon’s only co-credits. Certainly Levon never had enough attachment to the song to feature it in 1990s shows. The lone songwriter WAS true by Cahoots, except for Life is A Carnival:
Robbie Robertson: I wrote “Life is a Carnival”, and I gave Levon credit and Rick credit because they were there when I was doing it.
Those who were there agree that Robbie and Garth were the creative force. That extended and comes up in later interviews (not mentioned here) where by Northern Lights, Southern Cross in 1975, the others did their parts and disappeared, while Robbie and Garth spent months crafting the album.
John Scheele says that during the Stage Fright sessions, Levon was nodded out, and they’re all backing that up. The unforgivable, as stated in Testimony, was that Levon was lying direct to Robbi’s face about being a junkie. This is late 1970. All La Glory shows Robbie’s family and why he was breaking away. The Band were ‘a cloud, darkness.’
I relate so strongly to all this which is why I always take Robbie’s side. In the 1980s, when I became a full time textbook writer, I suddenly found my co-author was doing nothing, and was also resenting that I was coming in daily with finished stuff. I broke when we each had long promotional tours and had two Workbooks to write. While he was away, I did one on my own. While I was away, he didn’t even get started on the other. I had a young family and no longer wanted to sit in an office watching him chain smoking.
We see very little on Stage Fright (which I rate as highly as the first two), skip Cahoots and Moondog Matinee entirely. The story switches to Los Angeles, and David Geffen. We’re into Geffen using Robbie as a route to Bob Dylan, and persuading him to move to Malibu. That worked. Listen out for Geffen’s assessment of Woodstock!
We hear Joni Mitchell Free Man In Paris (Robbie on guitar) but NOT the story behind it when Geffen, Joni and the Robertsons took a trip to Paris together.
I was amused by the aplomb with which David Geffen says of Dylan ‘Robbie was the one who suggested I meet him.” We’ll take that one with a pinch of salt. We get into the Before The Flood tour without any mention of Planet Waves. Endless Highway provides the soundtrack. Knocking on Heaven’s Door follows.
It still amazes me that they went on from the fastest selling major tour up to that time to playing support to CSNY a few months later. The Shape I’m In provides the theme, and comment.
The Cleveland show is described where they had to play without Richard, who was too sick because he’d lost his stash. I have the feeling we’re already into 1976 having skipped Northern Lights Southern Cross. It’s recounted to a wearied rendition of Twilight.
I can see this too, as Robbie describes Levon’s paranoia about their advisors and managers. My old writing partner believed that everyone was ripping him off. It gets tiring!
Jimmy Vivino and Dominique come in here. Jealousy and resentment were setting in already back then. Another comment to look out for is John Simon … he says he had that sense of Robbie moving on right back at the first album.
And so to The Last Waltz, opening with Stage Fright with a good chance to focus on Rick. Enter Martin Scorsese. Who Do You Love with Ronnie, another great anecdote. Caravan with Van commenting. I’ve seen Van Morrison more than a dozen times since. Someone always calls out for Caravan (usually as Radio!) and he never does it. I guess that when you’ve done such an ultimate version, you leave it. Further On Up The Road with Eric’s guitar strap breaking, and Eric describing it. Then I Shall Be Released. A pity they missed Neil Young touching Joni’s bum, and her glaring at the innocent Neil Diamond!
Back to mixing the song Once were Brothers … ‘Some things weren’t meant to last.’ The collage here is the Band members with their partners and children. Robbie stresses that he was ready to go right back into the studio if any of the others had been willing.
Robbie talks about the feud over songwriting and money, as ever the choice of song is apposite: It Makes No Difference. Ronnie comes in to stress that indeed, Robbie was writing all of the songs. They bring in Larry Campbell who probably heard Levon’s story as much as anybody. The collage of pictures is Levon.
The choice to take it home is Levon on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with a rapid collage of pictures interspersed. The final pictures just give the dates of life and death. Levon, Rick, Richard.
That must be the greatest rock live performance ever. And it’s Levon.
I loved it. I probably didn’t learn much, but even the bits I did know were well-delivered.
For film reviews on my blog I have five rating categories:
In terms of quality and editing and interest value, it hits the ***** 4K HD rating.
BUT the best material is ancient archive footage, TV camera, or Super 8 or 16 mm film. Then there are superb stills. The only new material filmed with an HD (or even UHD) camera will be the talking heads. To be honest, I can’t see anything that would be improved beyond DVD quality.
In the pandemic, I would think streaming is more likely in most countries than theatrical release.
If the producers have any sense, they’ll add bonus material to a DVD … those tantalising live clips in full (Good luck with the Dylan Paris footage). That would make it an essential purchase for any Band fan. They might do the DVD plus a de-luxe blu ray with the extras, but it’s short enough to get everything on one disc.
You need it. You also need The Last Waltz, Festival Express and Classic Albums: The Band.
In The Band
Let’s do a list of complaints:
No mention is made of the Band member’s solo careers
No mention is made of Robbie’s solo career either. It’s based on his autobiography Testimony and so stops at The Last Waltz.
No mention is made of the 80s and 90s reunion versions of The Band.
Robbie gave his permission for the use of the name, but declined to join the 1980s reunion. This seems to be when the feud started from Levon’s point of view. The result was the “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth” tour with four Cate Bros Band members replacing Robbie.
The only comment he made was to wish them well and add ‘I hope they don’t stay up too late.’
The 1990s reunion was a better band, even if it lacked Richard Manuel. Jim Weider, Richard Bell and Randy Ciarlante were all great musicians, but they really lacked a songwriter. When they turned to Bruce Springsteen for Atlantic City or Bob Dylan for Blind Willie McTell the potential shone out. Both songs were up there with the original quintet. Too often they resorted to tired Levon-led boogie, and failed to perform Rick Danko’s more melodic and far better songs like Small Town Talk, Driftin’ Away, All Creation, Blue River. It seemed to me that Levon didn’t want another dominant songwriter in The Band. Don’t forget that other members referred to Levon as ‘The Boss.’
I can’t see that it was Robbie’s place or role or even his right to discuss the reunion bands, and it was clear that THEIR story as well as HIS story did not go beyond 1976 in this film.
In particular, no mention is made of Levon’s spectacular Grammy-winning return with Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt.
They’re easily the best solo things Levon did. Again, we’re nearly forty years further down the road from the end, at that dramatic 1976 point.
Note that two important musicians from Levon’s Midnight Ramble and Dirt Farmer eras were given screen time. Jimmy Vivino and Larry Campbell. That is not brushing his later career under the carpet, it was applying focus.
The only other surviving member, Garth Hudson, does not get to speak on film
Daniel Rohrer, the director, has spoken about this. He went to see Garth. He spoke with him intending to do an interview for the film, but says there was nothing usable and it would not have done Garth justice to interview him at that time. Instead we focus on the musical introduction to Chest Fever. There is a short recorded audio only quote.
I thought Rick didn’t much of a say either. They found two unseen Richard Manuel clips, and they had clips of Levon speaking. Rick spoke in Classic Albums: The Band but perhaps too specifically on songs to fit the narrative.
They could have used spoken clips from The Last Waltz, but what would have been the point? That exists separately.
‘Garth Hudson and his wife live in Woodstock’ was a meagre end credit
Yes, it was. They should at least have added ‘and his wife Maud.’
I thought there was a similar slip when Robbie said of his final visit to Levon that ‘his daughter was there and she took me into the room.’ He has known Amy Helm since she was a baby surely. That leapt out as a little disrespectful, I’d have said ‘his daughter, Amy’. But you can hear the emotion in Robbie’s voice, so let’s not nit-pick.
Bringing up the feud …
Unfortunately, that’s all over the net. This Wheel’s On Fire was the cause. It’s unfair.
Ronnie Hawkins: They were a hell of a combination, because Levon could put together the arrangements and all that, and Robbie could write the songs.
Songwriting is defined as the top line (melody) and lyric. All else is arrangement. It is not rewarded with a royalty.
So that when The Weight is recorded by Aretha Franklin, Jackie De Shannon, Spooky Tooth, Diana Ross & The Supremes With The Temptations, The Staple Singers, Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper, Cassandra Wilson, Little Feat, Michelle Shocked, Joe Cocker, Isaac Guillory, Paul Jones, Travis, Joan Osborne, Garth Brooks, Rickie Lee Jones or John Denver it is still The Weight. No Levon drum part. No Garth piano part. No Rick bass part. No Richard organ. That’s why they don’t get a share for arrangement.
Robbie has said they all share in the publishing royalty.
Robbie did write the songs. He has written many other songs in the intervening years. Levon wrote nothing. Rick wrote a few. I believe the existing song credits are right.
If the Levonista faction believes Levon deserved a share of Robbie’s songs, why do they never press for a share of Richard’s songs, or of Rick’s songs?
It won’t stop. However, the Levonistas consider me an arch Robertsonian, so there you go!