Inside the mind of Robbie Robertson and his journey with The Band
The life and journey of a classic rock group like The Band can often be a strange and complicated one. Based on Robbie Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is the latest documentary to delve into the history of the influential rock outfit, and possibly shed some light on their experiences and eventual breakup in the late 1970’s.
The film had its premiere at the Walter Reade theater in New York City this week, with appearances from direct Daniel Roher, and even Robertson himself. Prior to the screening of the film, Robertson was able to answer some questions related to his experience with the transition from book to film, as well as some general thoughts on working in the film industry.
On the film’s interpretation of his work, Robertson was able to tell the filmmakers, “You don’t have to be word for word on anything here. You can really be imaginative. You can really take what you think is inspiring from the book, but you have to make a good movie.”
The film delves deep into Robertson’s early life in Toronto and his eventual time working with Ronnie Hawkins, where he ended up meeting all his future Band band-mates including longtime friend, drummer, and vocalist Levon Helm. The chronological history of Robertson’s time in the band unfolds, from their work as the Hawks, to their disastrous first tour with Bob Dylan, their rebranding and success as The Band, and their eventual further work alongside Dylan, culminating with their concert/film The Last Waltz, helped put together by Martin Scorsese. The film seamlessly weaves the history of The Band’s ups and downs throughout their career, with Robertson concluding that, “they really did a beautiful job.”
This, however, is in no way Robertson’s first foray into the film industry. Having worked on movies since The Band’s appearance in The Last Waltz. Two years late, Robertson would make his film, acting, and writing debut in the drama Carney, which follows the lives of members of a traveling circus.
A self-described “movie buff”, Robertson has been working and dealing in film for over 40 years now. A lot of his experience has come working alongside legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, for which he’s worked with on at least ten separate occasions. Most notably, Robertson was responsible for the music between Scorsese’s most recent epic crime film, The Irishman.
“Every time I’ve worked on a movie with him, it’s completely different,” Robertson said. “Every time it’s like a new experience, and that’s one of the main reasons I love it so much. It really is something that puts you to the test. You have to figure out what to do when you have nothing to compare it to. So, it’s very exciting and I’m looking forward to the next one.”
A prominent theme the filmmakers try to drive home here is the importance of brotherhood and family to Robertson and The Band. These connections and emotions are often tested when a group is able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time. Talent, success, fame, drugs, parties, and money can all weigh heavy on relationships, as they did here. The Last Waltz would be Robbie Robertson’s final work with The Band, and his relationship with longtime friend Levon Helm would sadly deteriorate over the next few years. Despite it all, the there is a clear focus on the love that once existed between these five men, and the intense brotherly bond that launched them from just “some band”, to The Band.