Robbie Robertson Has His Say

A new documentary about The Band tells the story of the legendary group from the perspective of its songwriter and lead guitarist

11 Nov 2019 | 03:05

I’m going to write something unpopular right here about the story of The Band, one of the most beloved groups in rock and roll history:

Robbie Robertson, its songwriter, lead guitarist and spokesman, has been treated shabbily by the supporters of Levon Helm. The group’s drummer blamed Robertson for the breakup of The Band up to his dying day in 2012. Helm all but accused Robertson of turning his back on his bandmates, hogging the lucrative songwriting credits and walking away with an inordinate share of the publishing windfall.

Not Fair or True

Thanks to the ferocity of Helm’s loyal fans, these theories have gained momentum over the years. Robertson, showing massive restraint, previously declined to address the chatter or defend his reputation.

It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s not true.

This is one of the underlying themes of the elegiac new documentary "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band," which will open in New York and Los Angeles before breaking “wide” a week later. I saw a screening last week, and I can assure Band fans that the film will serve as a worthy bookend to 1978’s "The Last Waltz,' a concert film of The Band’s last show on Thanksgiving night in 1976 in San Francisco.

The documentary, which was directed by 26-year-old wunderkind Daniel Roher, took more than two years to complete. As Robertson explained in a Q & A session after the screening, when he first encountered Roher, he pointedly asked him the obvious question: "How old are you?" When Roher replied 24, Robertson said, "Good," pleased that someone so young and enthusiastic had signed on to the project.

The Band rose to the big time after backing Bob Dylan on his ”going-electric” tours of 1965 and 1966. They were heralded as mysterious seers and have been hailed as one of the fathers of Americana roots music (whatever that is). Time put The Band on the cover of the Jan. 12, 1970 issue, proclaiming the five musicians to personify “the new sound of country rock” (although Dylan had already recorded two country albums in Nashville).

In Helm’s 1993 memoir, "This Wheel’s on Fire," he savagely blames Robertson for taking The Band from productivity to retirement. He asserts that Robertson wanted to leave behind the familiar cycle of touring in favor of doing film soundtracks with his Svengali, Martin Scorsese, who directed "The Last Waltz."

A Different Story

Robertson tells a different story in "Once Were Brothers," which is an adaptation of his terrific 2016 autobiography, "Testimony." If the excellent film "The Last Waltz"was a celebration of The Band’s rise, "Once Were Brothers" serves as a cautionary tale of the excesses of success.

The most pronounced excess, sadly, is substance abuse. Robertson’s bandmates, the sensational vocalists Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Helm himself, overdid it to the point that none of them regularly came up with original songs for Band albums after the heady triumphs of Music from Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright, the group’s first three albums.

The pressure fell to Robertson to write all of the songs, give interviews and basically keep The Band together. Robertson makes it clear that Helm was the big brother that he never had, as an only child. When Robertson joined forces with Helm and rockabilly master Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s, Robertson had achieved a dream come true: an escape from his native Toronto and a discovery of the American South, whose music, language and culture he revered.

Helm, however, proved to be an unreliable mentor many years before The Band made it big and the cracks started forming. He actually walked out on a Bob Dylan tour in late 1965 because he was tired of getting booed – although Dylan, who took the brunt of the catcalls, stuck it out, as did Helm’s mates. Thus, Helm forced Dylan to find a new drummer on the fly.

It’s possible that the reason Robertson decided to stop touring was that he had grown weary of holding together a band filled with party animals. It was a shame that The Band split up while it was still creating terrific music on stage and in the studio. I saw The Band six times with Robbie Robertson playing lead guitar, from 1970 to 1976 – and, to my ears, every show got better and better.

If you love The Band, you will greatly enjoy "Once Were Brothers." It will make you smile and celebrate the brilliant music – and lament what went wrong.