Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz, based on the Band’s 1976 “farewell” concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, is, in my estimation, one of the two or three greatest rock ’n’ roll films ever made. I have watched it more times than I can count, and each time am newly stunned by the tactile vividness and beauty with which the film captures the experience of live music and live music-making. What The Last Waltz is quite famously not is a great documentary film, at least in the way that we understand that genre as generally adjacent to the truth. The film misleadingly depicts the group’s breakup as a mutual and amicable parting of ways, while affording a disproportionate amount of screen time to guitarist and songwriter (and Scorsese friend) Robbie Robertson, not-so-effectively hiding the fact that Robertson’s other four bandmates are clearly uncomfortable with the film and its premise. Levon Helm, the Band’s peerless drummer and one of the group’s three primary vocalists, would become the movie’s most persistent and vocal critic, declaring it “the biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to The Band.” (Helm died in 2012.) Helm’s criticisms have followed The Last Waltz, and Robertson himself, for decades.
Robertson and the Band (pointedly in that order) are now the subject of a new documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, directed by Daniel Roher and executive-produced by Scorsese himself. The movie is “inspired by” Robertson’s 2016 memoir Testimony, but in many ways it feels like a sort of belated afterword to The Last Waltz, an attempt to finally confront the discord sewn by the group’s unusually iconic dissolution and subsequent recriminations. Once Were Brothers works best when it is at its most conventional: It ably tells the story of the group’s rise from four Canadians and one Arkansan (Helm) backing rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, to a legendary stint playing behind Bob Dylan as he transitioned from folkie to rock star, to an autonomous career of their own that resulted in two of the greatest albums ever made and even landed them on the cover of Time magazine, all on the way to becoming one of the most critically revered groups of all time.
But if you’re reading this review, chances are that you already know all this, which speaks to one of the central challenges of a film like this. Anyone watching this movie is likely already convinced of the Band’s greatness, so the question becomes what there is to add. Once Were Brothers features some terrific footage of the group, onstage and in the studio, but much of it has already been floating around for years. There’s a raft of esteemed talking heads, from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Clapton to Jann Wenner, offering encomiums to the Band and Robertson in particular, but it’s not exactly pulling teeth to get a bunch of aging rock dudes to show up for something like this, particularly with the names involved here. (Along with Scorsese, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are also credited as executive producers.) The film’s only (only!) female interviewee is Robertson’s wife, Dominique, a gender imbalance that is inexplicable and quickly grows exhausting. Garth Hudson, the sole surviving non-Robertson member of the original Band and a fascinating musical figure in his own right, is notably absent.
All of which leads us to what this film really is: Robbie Robertson’s side of the story. I suspected this going into the movie and frankly was open to it. For years Robertson has been a reviled figure among certain fans, his perceived villainy exacerbated by the immensely sad aftermath of the Band itself. In 1986, pianist and vocalist Richard Manuel took his own life after a concert, at age 42; in 1999 bassist and vocalist Rick Danko died at age 55, after decades of struggles with substance abuse. Robertson has taken unfair blame for the tragic turns their lives took after The Last Waltz, and one can only imagine that their losses pained him more than most. Furthermore, Robertson’s outsize reputation for selfishness and self-aggrandizement has occasionally obscured the fact that he is one of rock ’n‘ roll music’s most brilliant guitarists and most gifted songwriters. In other words: Robbie Robertson is not Mike Love, by any stretch.
Once Were Brothers could have been a peacemaking gesture, a magnanimous work of reflection and tribute that would gather Robertson some belated goodwill, and the film’s first half makes some moves in that direction. But damned if that hatchet just won’t stay buried. As the film goes on it increasingly dwells on Manuel’s, Danko’s, and Helm’s respective descents into substance abuse, essentially implying that the Band broke up because the three men’s addictions had made them into dysfunctional co-workers. I’m sure there is some truth to this, but Robertson’s own drug use, which was by all accounts considerable, is waved away with the dubious distinction that he was never actually an “addict,” and the playing of these three men displayed in The Last Waltz doesn’t exactly attest to diminishing musicianship. What we’re left with is a film airing the dirty laundry of folks who aren’t around to defend themselves, from both Robertson and particularly Dominique, whose testimonies on behalf of her husband are often shot through with the insinuation Robbie is too polite to ever say this, but …
Most unforgivable is the film’s treatment of Helm. While the movie devotes precious little time or attention to the post-Band lives of any of Robertson’s erstwhile “brothers,” Helm is characterized only in terms of lingering bitterness, with the film emphasizing Robertson’s widely-publicized visit to the drummer on his deathbed. (Helm was not conscious.) But Helm led a full and wonderful life, a beloved man and a major figure in American music in his own right. The “Midnight Rambles” that he held at his farm in Woodstock, NY, to raise money for his medical treatment, were the stuff of legend, attracting artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Norah Jones to Allen Toussaint. Late in his life, while his cancer was in remission, Helm won Grammy Awards for a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums, 2007’s Dirt Farmer and 2009’s Electric Dirt. The film mentions none of this, which feels wrong and more than a little bit cruel.
With its tone of score-settling, Once Were Brothers inadvertently ends up selling the Band, and even Robertson himself, short. In the hope of not ending on a note of similar negativity, allow me to correct some of that here. When the Band were at the height of their powers there was simply nothing else like them, and there likely never will be. In Once Were Brothers, the blues musician Taj Mahal likens them to a North American version of the Beatles, a claim that’s both hyperbolic and also, in many respects, true. I can’t think of another self-contained musical outfit from this continent that combined such virtuosic technical ability with such extraordinary songwriting acumen. The Band made music on their own terms and for its own sake, art that was magical and weird and entirely unforgettable. I first saw The Last Waltz as a teenager, and simply couldn’t believe that five people were capable of making music that well. That is what’s important, and what should be remembered. Once Were Brothers might well be a more truthful film; the problem, for Robertson and the movie, is that the truth doesn’t always tell the story you want it to.