The first half of this film is utterly astounding.
Watching Ronnie Hawkins boogie on stage is worth the time alone. From back in the era when records were just the starting point, just the blueprint for a live performance. Those days are returning in the non-Spotify Top 50 world, but I’m not sure we’ll see the days of the Band again, timing is everything, and back then the world was both smaller and larger. As in we were not all connected and you could function under the radar, honing your chops, and then emerge seemingly fully-formed on the landscape, with no one knowing the dues you’d paid, and be known by everybody.
It’s not that the second half is not good, but we know most of that story.
We thought we knew the beginning, but we did not, in this movie it is fleshed out.
Robbie Robertson needed it. Worked and practiced harder than anybody he knew. And despite being legendary as a songwriter today, he was the hottest picker in Toronto. Today we have rap battles, back then they were axe battles.
So, Robbie single-mindedly pursues his dream and travels to Arkansas to audition for the aforementioned Hawkins and then goes on the road where Levon Helm teaches him the ropes, where he gets paid in…I don’t think you can say the “p” word anymore, but Hawkins does, says there will be little cash, but tons of the p-word.
And they’re paying dues in the trenches ad infinitum. They’re in their own little R&B world, but then word starts to spread. That’s the ugly little truth that no one acknowledges, you can hype yourself to high heaven and probably not gain any traction, but if you’re truly great they search you out, they want to know you, most of the heavies in the scene are students of the game.
So, John Hammond brings Robbie to a session and he meets Bob Dylan and the rest is history, only…
The history we know is from “Don’t Look Back.” And today many people say that Bob was not booed. Robbie contradicts this, but Dylan cares not a whit, he’s doing what he wants, the audience be damned.
Time has faded away, but the only other person I know who did this was Neil Young. He was the king of the soft rock set with “Harvest,” then he went on the road and played raucous rock and roll, brand new, unrecorded numbers, and the arena crowds were dumbstruck. Funny how he’s the one with the career today. And Dylan too. When most of their peers have faded away.
Not that you do not have to seize opportunities. Hawkins is going into the studio yet has no material, so Robbie writes two numbers, which get recorded. Robbie knew what he wanted, he worked hard to get it. And this whole movie proves the power of songs, they are what last, a great band is nothing without them.
So, the Band, then named “Levon and the Hawks,” goes out with Dylan and Levon doesn’t like the scene and quits but when it’s all over the remaining four move to Woodstock and rent Big Pink and Dylan comes by and they record the Basement Tapes. That was a big deal back then. Dylan had disappeared. And suddenly, others are recording his songs, like Peter, Paul & Mary with “Too Much of Nothing,” and the Byrds with “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Never underestimate the power of a manager. You can’t make it big without one. Albert Grossman also represented Peter, Paul & Mary. And eventually Dylan reappeared with “John Wesley Harding” and “Nashville Skyline,” but in the interim the newly-christened Band was woodshedding, creating “Music From Big Pink.”
Levon came back, but the key to success was they had time to create, they weren’t working every night on the road. John Simon reflects that they were on salary, but when it started and who paid is left unsaid. Did Grossman pay while he was searching for a record deal, or was it after the Capitol contract was signed?
But when no one is paying attention, when you’ve got the desire, when there are no outside influences, that’s when you can stretch out, test the limits, create and be your best self.
That’s hard to do in this internet era.
And, once again, you’ve got to be able to afford it. Meaning if music is something you do on the side, if you’ve got a day job to pay the bills, good luck making it.
And then the scene devolves into drugs and there’s a war between Levon and Robbie and…
Maybe you were alive back then, maybe you weren’t. But one thing is for sure, the Band were singular, there was not another act like them, they created their own niche, they did not need feature performers, they just had to do their thing, and the audience embraced it. Not at first, without a hit single no one penetrated the public that fast back then, but it would build, to the point everybody knew you, and when the second album was released…
That was the peak.
But too much success leads to excess. How do you deal with the attention, how do you deal with the stage fright, what happens when you have a lot more money than sense?
Alcohol and drugs.
Robbie says that’s what killed the band, drove a wedge between him and the others. Do they have a contrary opinion? Well, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko are dead, and Levon Helm’s opinion has become public fact, he fought cancer, his voice was impaired, he held concerts in his barn, he was not hanging with the Hollywood elite…was Robbie guilty or innocent?
Brandi Carlile writes the songs, but she shares ownership with her bandmates, she doesn’t want disharmony over royalties to break up the act.
Then again, when you’ve got five people in the band and a record deal from the sixties, how much money were you making? Plenty in the sixties, a pittance today. These rock stars had to work to be rich, and most of them were ignorant as to cash, and when they finally woke up, got off the road and got clean, they were broke, oftentimes with royalty streams sold or stolen from them.
“Once Were Brothers” is definitely Robbie Robertson’s story. He becomes more likable as the film proceeds, but we may never know the true history here. But he deserves credit for including Levon’s take.
As for the talking heads?
Most of them are superfluous. I don’t care what Bruce Springsteen has to say about the Band, or Peter Gabriel either. I guess Eric Clapton had it right, he wanted to join the band, he asked to jam…but was told the Band did not, jam that is. You can get close, but you can never get in, you can never join.
And you cannot inherit this success, you’ve got to earn it.
And once you peak, you usually can never create at that level again. Would Robbie’s solo albums be better if the Band was involved, if he didn’t sing? Probably. Would they have shaped the material to equal the quality of the initial trio of Band albums? Doubtful. As it was, I don’t know a single person who can quote anything from “Islands,” never mind even come up with any of the tracks.
So what we’ve learned here is rock and roll fame burns very bright for a very short period of time. You spend a lot of time outside the spotlight getting ready, then you’re subjected to the starmaking machinery, which then spits you out in favor of something else. So, you record new music no one listens to, lose your record deal and go on the endless road, playing usually to a dwindling crowd of aged acolytes, who remember when.
But when back in the sixties and seventies was not like other eras. Money was important, but it was not everything. Self-expression and self-realization were the keys. And you looked to gurus to guide you. And the biggest gurus were musicians.
Does this movie work if you were not there, if you were not a fan?
Maybe, assuming you’re a student of the game. But especially in this hip-hop era it seems like ancient history. Then again, Bob Dylan was inspired by Woody Guthrie and Eric Clapton and the rest of his contemporaries in the U.K. were inspired by the Delta bluesmen.
Levon waxes rhapsodic about Memphis radio.
At that time, hits were regional. What they played in Memphis was even different from what they played in Nashville, never mind New York. The sound was fresh, ground was being gained by people who only wanted to play, they had no interest in becoming a brand, they were hooked on the music and the lifestyle, they had no interest in showing up in a suit at the crack of dawn to stroke those in the boardroom. No one ever did a story on how much money the Band made, that was not relevant.
So today there’s a documentary about everybody. But this one is a cut above. Because it had a budget, maybe because Marty Scorsese was the executive producer. Then again many executive producers have no input on the content. But they had the cash to come up with footage, also this was an era where there were photographs, and some moving pictures, even in color, of the Band. So you can see the story, it comes alive.
So, what we’ve got is less nostalgia than inspiration. You get a window into what once was. And you’re forced to ask yourself who you want to be. A friend of Robbie’s wanted to own a bowling alley. You can’t do everything in life, you’re lucky if you can do one thing. What do you want to dedicate your time to? I read in the paper today that no one wants to work. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a sliver of people who live to work, whose creations thrill us, make our lives worth living, whether it be Steve Jobs pushing the limits of technology or the Band making records.
But it is a lot of work. And you never know when, or if, you’re going to get the rewards. But some make it. Some become legends. Not everybody has the chops or the desire, but if you do…we can recognize it, like Van Morrison kicking at “The Last Waltz.”
Robbie says it was not supposed to be the end.
Then again, he says they needed a break, primarily from the drugs.
That’s not the way the media spun it back then, the story was it was over.
But one thing is for sure, they never did it again. It was five people at a certain moment in time who could not do it without each other. Lightning struck. It illuminated the world. We paid attention. And the burn is implanted in our brains, we will never forget. “Once Were Brothers” will remind you. And if you’ve still got some juice in the tank, it will inspire you.
P.S. It’s “free” on Hulu. Subscribe.