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The Band Authorized Video Biography

by James Tappenden

Article originally appeared in the Usenet newsgroup, March 1996.

I second the recommendation of this video. The price is pretty reasonable, and the archival footage is very interesting (Though I would have appreciated more than a few seconds of the group backing Dylan). You do get to see much more of Richard singing than you do in the Last Waltz, which is welcome.

The video is meant for a general audience, though, and so you probably won't learn anything you didn't already know. Also, much of the stuff seems to be included for the PR value - George Harrison saying how great he thought the group was, Eric Clapton saying they were great, Emmylou Harris saying they were great, etc. I wish Clapton would have discussed Robbie's guitar, or elaborated on his remark (quoted elsewhere - not in this documentary) that Richard was the light of the Band, but the interview clips fit in here are pretty standard.

I didn't think the interviews all that revealing, but one or two were fun - Ronnie Hawkins always tells a good story, and Fred Carter's reminisces about his early tussles with Robbie are amusing. (The documentary does leave the distinct impression that it was Carter, rather than Roy Buchanen, that was beaten out for the guitar spot in the Hawks by Robbie, which is a bit careless. Carter had left for lucrative Nashville session work by the time the "big showdown" was set up.)

There is one exception: if you pick up this video you will probably learn a lot about Levon. Early on there is a lot of (interesting) footage of Helena Ark, of Sonny Boy Williamson, and lots of talk from Levon about watching the King Biscuit show from the corner of the studio, etc. He is far and away the most prominent figure here and he is the only one who discusses the music (the drum patterns) in more than a superficial way.

And this is my main caveat to anyone who is settling down to watch this video. Despite repeated interviewees remarks as to how they were all like brothers, there was no real leader, it was a true band, etc. the video is as beveled toward Levon as the Last Waltz was toward Robbie. Robbie's efforts and contributions are slighted in a way that is just silly and irritating. I found the Robbie-centric LW infuriating in this regard - Levon-centric Authorized Documentary is less so only because it is on a less grand scale. At a few points the video is especially deceptive in this regard - for example, Levon's trip to the oilfields leaving the others backing Dylan with Bobby Gregg is omitted altogether, and the narrative voice-over indeed suggests that Levon was with the group that retreated with Dylan to Woodstock after the car accident. The Dylan tour of '66 is presented in a way that leaves the distinct impression that Levon was still on board.

I agree with Levon's complaints in his book that one sees almost nothing of Garth in the Last Waltz. But one sees even less of him here. Naturally it is unfair to set a one-hour documentary aside a full-length film in respect of simple time of exposure, but the comparison in respect of quality tells against this documentary too - in the few moments of exposure in the Last Waltz, one did learn much - Garth's comments about the healing effects of simple popular music were compelling, and their simple, honest delivery carried the kind of force that carefully chosen words from a man of few words can. We get nothing like that here.

When Levon's book came out, I thought it a much-needed corrective to a pattern that had seemed to become the norm among music journalists to present a wildly inaccurate "Robbie and his sidemen" tale as the story of the Band. As a reminder of how much-needed this much-needed corrective was, you should revisit the liner notes to the To Kingdom Come anthology (reprinted in expanded form in Goldmine Magazine, and available on Jan's webpage). Among many other eyebrow-raising bits, we encounter a moment of self-aggrandising effrontery and wide-eyed credulity remarkable even by the standards set by Robbie and music journalist puffery respectively, as Robbie conveys to writer Bowman how he - Robbie - found how the drums and piano should sound, and figured out how the songs should be sung. ("Less shrieking/ more subtlety" says the Vocal Coach of the Shadowland - apparently just as he claims to have introduced Dylan to Rock and Roll, he introduced Richard to Bobby Bland and Ray Charles records.) When this sort of nonsense could be unblinkingly passed on to the purchasers of "The Definitive Collection" the time is ripe for a shot across the bow, and Levon's book did that. So I was glad it came out, even though though it creates the bad impression, and leaves the bad aftertaste, that such open displays of rancour always do.

But now the statement has been made, and it is time to leave it alone. This video is jarred by what distinctly feel like petty snubs. The "hypnotist/stage fright on the big night" episode is one of the few in which Robbie features in the documentary more than glancingly. Only once, in a passing allusion by Rick, is the fact that Robbie kept the group together in the final years, and that Northern Lights/Southern Cross and Islands really are (IMHO) albums that conform to the "Conception by Robbie/Performances by the Boys/Sweetening By Garth" stereotype that is mistakenly (IMHO) extended to the earlier albums.

So one wants to say - Levon, you have had your say, and many people (I am one) believe most of what you say (I don't accept all of it but and there are no doubt even lots of people who believe it all.) Even those who don't believe any of it are unlikely to as uncritically report that Robbie was the one who taught you what drums should sound like. So now leave it be.

But anyway - back to the main line: if you are prepared for a video that puts you a bit in mind of Spike Milligan's delightful WWII memoirs "Monty - his part in my victory" and "Hitler - my part in his downfall" I dare say you will enjoy it a lot. You do get a pretty good sense of Levon, his musical history, the old footage is really engaging, and (despite what I said above) the little jabs at Robbie are not all that obvious or frequent.

So get it and enjoy it!


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