Here’s a quiz for roots music fans. Multiple choice. The Band was: a) the world’s all-time greatest bar band; b) the finest performers of Bob Dylan covers; c) the most authentic contemporary link to America’s folk music heritage; or d) Martin Scorsese’s favorite rock group.
All four choices are correct, particularly “d,” on the evidence of the new documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. As exec-produced by Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard (among others), and directed by veteran doc hand Daniel Roher, the new film tribute to The Band essentially serves as the official history of the late, great quintet that made “The Weight” the anthem of every bunch of garage rockers who ever retreated to a cabin in the country to woodshed their material. And since Once Were Brothers is built around lead guitarist and songwriter Robertson — he does the voiceover narration — it’s also a fitting follow-up to Scorsese’s landmark 1987 concert doc The Last Waltz.
After audiences got a load of Levon Helm’s vocals on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” they assumed these five hairy dudes with the old-time hats were Southerners. Helm actually gave the (impossible) impression he was in the Civil War himself. However, Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Rick Danko are — or were; Robertson and Hudson are the group’s surviving members — products of Canada. Helm, the embodiment of “Virgil Caine,” grew up in the Arkansas community of Turkey Scratch.
Toronto’s Robertson, son of a Native-American mother and a Jewish father, met his four collaborators while backing up rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins. Robertson was only 15 when he took the stage with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks as guitarist and songwriter. Hawkins, now a feisty 85, repeatedly steals the movie with his commentary. According to him, he reassured his young employee: “Don’t worry about the money. But you’re gonna get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
Drummer/vocalist Helm did the arrangements, Robertson wrote most of the songs. The players developed the rare type of interconnectedness that catapults excellent musicians into legendary status, night after night in thousands of gigs. After breaking away from Hawkins they had three of the most soul-stirring “backwoods Americana” voices in showbiz, in Helm, Danko, and Manuel — later to be combined with inventively “old-fashioned” arrangements.
In 1965 blues musician John Hammond (son of the renowned producer of the same name) took Robertson to Columbia Records in New York to meet Bob Dylan, and SHAZAM! Robertson and his guys thrilled Dylan so much he used them as backing musicians during his stormy transition from acoustic folk-music hero to enigmatic rock idol — a time when “cappuccino-sipping” folkies hissed those nasty electric guitars. “We played with Bob and got booed every night,” remembers Robertson. But the Hawks really became The Band when they moved into a secluded house outside Saugerties, New York in 1967, to do nothing all day but hone their sound. Cue Music from Big Pink, a string of mega-influential albums, and international acclaim.
Their fans included Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, music producer John Simon, Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, and of course Dylan — all of whom contribute talking-head raves, à la: “They had voices like they’d always been there, forever and ever.” The Band’s “unpretentious, un-jivey, un-cute” approach moves Scorsese to compare their songs to Herman Melville short stories.
The doc naturally adopts Robertson’s point of view, and so we hear his side of his late-period feud with Helm over songwriting credits. The basic lack of big-picture perspective is the only real drawback to Once Were Brothers, but we get over it. Once the music track kicks in, the doc goes up on Cripple Creek and never comes down.