Tropic Sprockets / Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

By Ian Brockway

Daniel Roher delivers a somewhat uniform, but still affectionate, portrait of the 1960s roots rock group The Band. Titled “Once Were Brothers,” the film captures the organic symbiosis of this dynamic ensemble.

As a young man, musician Robbie Robertson was drawn to the guitar and the Native American drums heard with his family. In the late 1950s, he discovered Rockabilly. He joined The Hawks and became friends with the energetic drummer Levon Helm. For a few years Robertson and Helm were musicians working for Rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins.

Then in 1965, Bob Dylan heard Helm and Robertson and asked them to join him.

The trio was booed on stage in part because of their electric guitars. Shortly after The Band was born — a mixture of blues, country and soul. Folks that understood the music felt it was life changing, like nothing else ever heard.

The Band went on to record the catchy “Up on Cripple Creek.” The single was a hit, utilizing bluegrass rhythms and with the percussion of Native American drums. 

Abruptly, Helm got cold feet seeing Dylan court all of his famous celebrities and music friends. Helm quits.

After Helm quits, Robertson discovers an odd pink house, lined with asbestos. It becomes a sanctuary of freedom and inspiration. Helm returns and the famous song The Weight is recorded.

Then, The Band gets famous and parties to excess. Literal accidents happen involving cars. Manuel breaks his neck. The band discovers heroin.

The energy dissipated.

According to Robertson, the harmony that all of them created was too beautiful to last. But not before “The Last Waltz” occurs, a musical party filmed by Martin Scorsese.

Longtime friend Scorsese appears along with Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, Taj Mahal and Eric Clapton, all of them in awe of the five members: Robertson, Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

Central to the film is Robbie Robertson who has a bemused wonder and enthusiasm for every friend and song that he has encountered. Though the passing of The Band was swift and bittersweet, one can take heart in Robertson. Like a laughing magnet, he brought the circus of a group known as The Band together, a drum circle of brothers, all soldier-like and driven without any flash, fanfare or distracting fame.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com