ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BAND (Daniel Roher). 100 minutes. Opens Friday (September 20). See review.
Robbie Robertson may be the only Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who keeps up to date on Indigenous issues by calling his relatives and the current and former chiefs of the Six Nations Reserve.
According to current elected chief Ava Hill, they often speak on the phone about the revitalization of the languages, residential school survivors and the activity in the community.
A legend of roots-rock music, Robertson walked the red carpet as the subject of the Toronto International Film Festival’s opening night gala presentation of Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band at Roy Thomson Hall, and the guests included Six Nations of the Grand River chief Hill and the doc’s Toronto-based director Daniel Roher.
The film is the first Canadian-made documentary to open TIFF and is hitting cinemas on September 20. Roher wasn’t the first director to attempt to tell Robertson’s incredible story.
“There were other people involved, before him, but it wasn’t working at all,” says Robertson by phone, from L.A. “I liked this idea of this young guy from Toronto, and the films he had done before were fantastic and kind of outrageous. I thought he had the right edge, he was extremely sharp and reminded me of myself, in a way, when I was young and on a mission.”
Once Were Brothers tracks Robertson’s early music career and the bond between the Band’s members – Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Robertson – and is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
Robertson grew up in various Toronto neighbourhoods, often travelling to his mother’s relatives in the nearby Six Nations reserve, before launching a six-decade-long music career that brought him to Arkansas and back to Toronto playing rock and roll in the 1960s. He then formed the seminal group the Band, the focus of the celebrated concert doc The Last Waltz (directed by Scorsese), wrote film soundtrack producer/composing for Scorsese films, authored a memoir, Testimony, on which this documentary is based, all the while continuing a solo career.
While the documentary is a timely look back – it’s the 50th anniversary of the Band’s self-titled sophomore album, which delivered the classic song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – this isn’t the last we’ll see of Robertson.
The melding of music and movies will continue for Robertson in an upcoming film project with frequent collaborator Scorsese. Based on David Grann’s book Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI, Robertson calls it “an incredible American Indian story.” He adds that he and Scorsese are already talking about the music, as “it’s going to play a very important part of the storytelling.”
In addition, his sixth solo album, Sinematic, also comes out on September 20.
“I’ve never done this before, but this record incorporates everything that was circling around me: Martin Scorsese’s new movie The Irishman, which I’ve done the music for the documentary, which has a song called Once Were Brothers and it connects to the new book I’m writing as well,” says Robertson. “And it’s the 50th anniversary of The Band album. In the past, I’ve always tried to separate [projects] and make them individual entities, which they still are, but this time I let it all feel like it was coming together on this record.
“[The album] is a true reflection of what’s going on right now and I like dealing with that kind of honesty in projects. It’s very much like that in this documentary as well,” he adds. “I’m getting a really warm feeling inside being able to share that in this stage in my journey.”
This is an updated version of a story published online and in print as part of NOW’s TIFF 2019 coverage.