photo manipulation & text by nacrowe
what the documentary ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON AND THE BADN (DIAMOND DOCS, 2019) examines effectively is the mercurial nature of that special alchemy that makes musical collaborations work. its a mysterious process that is deeply rooted in our most basic need for connection, which is what i feel when i am entranced and under the spell of music.
this documentary is, in essence, a look back at criminally short and influential career of THE BAND from the perspective of ROBBIE ROBERTSON. it examines everything from his childhood split between TORONTO and a FIRST NATION reservation to his introduction to early ROCK N ROLL and beyond. having discovered AMERICAN ROCKABILLY and BLUES artists at a young age, ROBERTSON taught himself guitar and began writing songs while still in his teens. this gift for songwriting coupled with his indomitable drive led him to a gig with RONNIE HAWKINS AND THE HAWKS (where he met future THE BAND bandmate LEVON HELM) that morphed into LEVON AND THE HAWKS before becoming BOB DYLAN's backing band on his famed 1966 "electric" tour and then finally solidified into THE BAND.
what is interesting is how THE BAND's musical chemistry was what enabled their ability to shape-shift so abruptly with such conviction and authenticity, from RHYTHM & BLUES to FOLK ROCK hybrid to what would later be deemed AMERICANA and ROOTS ROCK. the tragedy is that this unspoken bond was challenged and ultimately discarded due to tribulations related to addiction, publishing rights, recognition and family. its a cliche story now but its interesting to look back at a period nearly half a century ago when such traditional interpersonal stress points were not widely known. its also particularly sad that for a musical outfit that succeeded based on their ability to fruitfully and selflessly collaborate, that it was this gnawing of said relationship that led to their downfall.
forget the music, but it feels like that abandoned relationship is the real tragedy elucidated throughout ONCE WERE BROTHERS. it was that connection that made peers gravitate to them immediately, as seen through recent interviews and archival footage of BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, GEORGE HARRISON, BOB DYLAN, PETER GABRIEL, TAJ MAHAL, JIMMY VIVINO, JOHN HAMMOND and VAN MORRISON, ERIC CLAPTON, JANN WENER and MARTIN SCORSESE attesting to such.
my sense is that such a connection is frail combustible entity that must be nourished and renewed and sacrificed for. its almost like a surrogate family of sorts. which is odd, because my interpretation of THE BAND was that they were a band of brothers or family of sorts. their music has that intimate vibe of shared experiences, mutual admiration and sacrifice. i guess heroin trumps such more than it doesnt.
this film is well-constructed and worth watching whether or not you are interested in this seminal and revolutionary CLASSIC ROCK band.