Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 03, 2020 4:56 am 
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(This review was meant to be published earlier)


Rock legend revisited

We heard about this in connection with Toronto.  It opened the festival.  It features grand old Canadian rock superstar Robbie Robertson.  It was made by a young Torontonian fan, only 26.  It's just the umteenth rock music documentary, you'll say, and marred by bias because it's dominated by Robbie's constant voice.  Of the five members of The Band three are dead, and besides Robbie only Garth Hudson remains, the shyest, and he's not talking. But still.  This is an excuse to hear greatest hits and look at a lot of classic period footage from half a century ago younger generations don't know. . . to wander those byways that led up to the rock summit held on Thanksgiving Day 1976 known as The Last Waltz and committed to film with typical precision and thoroughness by Martin Scorsese.  So why not? And if his version dominates, at least Robbie is a good storyteller.  And The Band? One of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music.

Robbie fell in love with an electric guitar very early, and by age sixteen was already performing.  Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks took him in, and he found his drummer, Levon Helm.  He discovered his "father" wasn't his real father, and he was Jewish.  He meet his Jewish relatives, who welcomed him, and told them he wanted to be a musician.  What, not a fur or jewelry dealer? They asked.  But then then understood: he meant show business A worthy aim. Very soon Robbie joins with the other musicians, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm.

The years go by, and they wind up with Bob Dylan, touring, and being booed - not only all over America but all over Europe and the UK.  (There is fine footage of this period.) The dashing young Dylan instructed them just to go on playing no matter what. The public bought the tickets - and booed.  On a later reunion with Dylan, they were to be greeted "like the second coming."  It was just a matter of time.  The music they were playing, Scorsese comments, reminded him of "19th-century literature - American literature - particularly Melville.  The look they sported also had a 19th-century flavor.  Their blend of folk and rock, which came to be known as "Americana," without long solos, with no jamming, based around composed songs, most often composed by Robbie (as he tells it, anyway), was sui generis.  It was that that drew Bob Dylan to them.  And at the same time, in Paris, Robbie meets a beautiful French Canadian woman, Dominique, who was to become his lifelong companion. She also narrates.

Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison, and Eric Clapton comment today on how overwhelmed they were by the group.  Gathering around Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, in Woodstock New York, they settled into the ugly country house that came to be known as Big Pink, the seminal, debut album, in 1968, Music from Big Pink.

From this high point the story devolves, as The Band becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol.  This film is unusual in using such terms. Partly this may be due to Dominique's later becoming a therapist specialized in addiction issues.  Robbie and Garth become the members holding things together; Robbie lacks the addict gene, Dominique says.  

Later Robbie meets the future music mega-magnate David Geffen and Geffen lures him out to Malibu, declaring Woodstock a "shit hole."  Robbie and Dominique move to Malibu. Later, The Band tours again with Dylan, reappearing after years of seclusion at Woodstock, with the aforementioned near-worshipful welcome this time from the public.  A manager recounts that after a 1974 tour The Band went on a tour by themselves, without Dylan; later, there is The Last Waltz, the remarkable gathering at Winterland in San Francisco  Nov. 25, 1976 where The Band played with Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton.  And Dylan. They had told Clapton they didn't jam.  Then, they jammed.

Robbie Robertson was 31 years old.  That this was a culmination and a conclusion underlines how much rock and roll is a thing of the young, and the musical genius that was abroad in the land in these years.   How do you live a life that rises to such a summit at such an early age?  Often, you don't, and drink and drugs did in The Band, or much of it, with car accidents a lethal feature of their lives.

What we don't learn here, except fleetingly, is that these brothers fought, and how much, and how turbulent the years may have been.  But we have seen some wonderful images (the stock footage is edited nicely, sometimes with rhythmic cutting that only palls toward the end) and we have heard some icnoic songs.

Once Were Brothers:  Robbie Robertson and The Band, 102 mins., debuted at Toronto; four other festivals including DOC NYC.  US theatrical release by Magnolia Feb. 21, 2010.  Metascore 57%. At Embarcadero SF and California Berkeley; IFC, Bow Tie and 47 West in NYC.


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