Review: “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” showcases transformative music

Daniel Roher directed 'Once Were Brothers,' which documents the story of The Band. (Photo via YouTube)

At first blush, The Band might not seem particularly important in the grand scale of rock music, right down to their generic name. But don’t judge a book by it’s cover; in Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, you see a group with a hell of a story to tell.

Documenting the family-like bond between five musicians, the film tells the origin story of The Band — a mysterious and magical group. It follows the band during a time in which there was a mass rebellion against the idea of family. But Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm were lucky in that they managed to find comfort in The Band — their chosen family.

Once Were Brothers mostly relies on Robertson’s retelling of events, with interviews and archived footage from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Hawkins and George Harrison. Director Daniel Roher’s narrative structure has a way of making you feel like you’re a part of something that you haven’t experienced; as someone who had never heard their music before, I immediately wanted to learn more.

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As far as documentaries go, this is one of the most visually interesting ones I’ve ever seen. Documentaries often fall into a monotonous pattern of panning across old photographs while experts or celebrities talk over them. But this one was unique. 

There was video documenting every step of the group’s journey. From private performances to sitting in the car with Bob Dylan after getting booed on stage to playing with their dog Hamlet – there was always something that made you feel like you were there.  

Roher had a distinctly whimsical way of depicting everything the musicians felt. When Robertson discovered rock and blues — a moment of excitement and intensity — there was a quick clip of an explosion, followed by a rocket blasting off and a professional boxcar speeding away, all symbolizing Roberston’s epiphany.

The music was incredible, documenting the transformation of the music scene from decade to decade. We saw Robertson go from playing rockabilly with the Hawks to folk and classic rock n’ roll with Bob Dylan to Americana with The Band all in about an hour and 40 minutes. 

But every high has its lows. Despite all the heart and soul the group put into their craft, their legacy crumbled as drug problems and alcohol addiction crept into their lives. Throughout the film, there’s a notable lack of discussion of the partying, rockstar lifestyle, so I began to believe The Band was above it all. And while some members were, the most heartbreaking moments of the film were when the wholesome illusion started to crack.

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Even in those trying times, their brotherhood was still obvious. Their farewell concert brought me to tears, and the ending of the film left me with a feeling of pride for the group. Through the ups and downs, I could still take comfort in the story of the group’s journey. 

Once Were Brothers showcases a group that a lot of people wouldn’t be able to pick out of a line-up, but the story it told is one everyone can connect to: family is forever. Whether it’s biological or a bond of friendship, whether you spoke yesterday or 20 years ago, there are some people you just can’t get rid of — and wouldn’t want to if you could. 

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