Robbie Robertson Explains How The Band Doc 'Once Were Brothers' Came Together

Robbie Robertson
Don Dixon

Robbie Robertson

"You write about what you know. You write about where you've been, you write about who you know," says Toronto-born singer, songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson at the start of the new documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which kicks off the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) tonight (Sept. 5) with its world premiere gala screening.

His forthcoming solo album, Sinematic (out Sept. 20), includes the song "Once Were Brothers," a sentimental, sad and succinct reflection on his time with Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel (d. 1986), Rick Danko (d. 1999) and Levon Helm (d. 2012) in the ground-breaking Canadian-American rock band The Band. They began as brothers, but as he sings, "we lost our connection after the war…brothers no more."

After backing Bob Dylan on his infamous electric tours, in 1968 The Band recorded its seminal debut album, Music From Big Pink, followed a year later with the self-titled album, which is being reissued this fall. Over the course of seven studio albums, Robertson penned such classics as "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up on Cripple Creek," "Acadian Driftwood" and "It Makes No Difference."

"I don't know any of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of The Band -- and it was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful, it went up in flames," Robertson says in the doc.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, directed by 26-year-old Toronto native Daniel Roher, includes rare archival footage and tales, such as Dylan telling a mob of fans outside their moving vehicle not to boo them to how a hypnotist helped Robertson get over pre-show nerves. There are also present-day interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Peter Gabriel, David Geffen and Ronnie Hawkins.

"There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band," says Springsteen, the first outside musician to offer insight in the film. "Simply their name — The Band. That was it."

The doc — based on Robertson's 2016 memoir, Testimony, covering the first three decades of his life — was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who directed The Band's 1978 swan song concert doc The Last Waltz; it's a joint venture between Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Documentaries, White Pine Pictures, Bell Media Studios and Universal Music's Shed Creative.

Billboard sat down with Robertson, 76, ahead of the premiere to chat about the film and touch on his new album.

I would want to see a making of the making of the doc -- Daniel's story on how he landed this amazing opportunity. I know there was a well-established documentary maker that started this project that didn't pan out.

He didn't start the project. He came to Los Angeles, this other filmmaker, and he's very good. There were several other names on a list. There were all of these different directions to go in. The film producers said, "Well, you should meet with this guy because we think he's amazing" and we got together, and he wanted to start shooting right away. We were starting just getting to know one another and I could see how he wanted to operate, and I told the production companies "I'm not feeling it." They were like, "Well, here's the list," then Jared [Levine], my manager, said there is this young guy who's made really interesting, unusual documentaries, and they said, "Whoa, you're really talented. What would you like to do next?" And he said, "I'd like to make a documentary on Robbie's book, Testimony."

So you met with Daniel. He's a huge fan of The Band, grew up with your music. What led you to give this kid in his early twenties this big opportunity?

It just felt right. It's one of those things you can't hardly describe -- a gut feeling. I met with him, saw the work that he had done. He talked about what he would like to do and I thought, "Let's give it a shot."

Could it also be that you were given an opportunity when you were 15, 16, 17 from Ronnie Hawkins, that you had the respect for a young person that maybe someone else in your position wouldn't feel because you were capable at that age. You knew he could be capable too?

I've known over the years a lot of young, talented people. It pushed a button for me. I recognized something in him and I thought he could be one of those kinds of people. And, also, he was 24 years old when he started on this. I was 24 years old when I made Music From Big Pink. So I thought it doesn't matter how old you are, as long as you've got that thing. I thought let's give it a whirl.

The 'brotherhood' of The Band really does come through in the film. It's not a 'this is my side' documentary. It mainly shows the unfolding of this love and friendship and camaraderie. There are three guys that aren't around anymore; they might've made a different documentary. Was it important to you to make a film that wasn't 'I'm going to tell my side'?

Well, I wasn't making that choice. The people working on it just said this is going to be inspired by your book. That's the basis of it. So they went and made the film and after they had an assembly of the footage and they thought it was in shape for me to see it, I looked at it. I thought, "Whoa, this is really quite moving. I like this." It celebrates this brotherhood because that was the core of this music, that we were that. That's what separated us from any other music group in the world. There was this brotherhood, this tightness, and we operated in our own world, in our own way, and making our own music. We weren't on somebody else's journey or trend or part of anything. We invented our world. So it went completely there. What I was able to contribute was some authenticity, "Oh, no, no, this here happened after that, and in this picture, that's not who you think it is; that's somebody else." So I just made it so everything was the truth.

When in your life did you gain the perspective on how your sound was created? In the film we do see the evolution and formation of The Band's sound and lyrics — Ronnie Hawkins' southern-ness, Bob Dylan's poetry, your ex-wife's literary interests — but when you're in it, you don't know that.

That was a growing ongoing thing, a discovery process. It wasn't like, "Okay, now we know." That was something that was taking place. The Hawks were together for several years before we made Music From Big Pink. We were discovering, woodshedding, honing our skills, gathering musicalities, gospel music, mountain music. We were working in the whole Chitlin Circuit and all the way up to Canada, and constantly incorporating things, incorporating things that most people weren't familiar with. That was interesting to us. Like I keep saying "the discovery." When we made Music From Big Pink, it sounded nothing like what we did with Ronnie Hawkins or the Hawks or Bob Dylan. It was a new thing for us. And we started recording and we were like, "Yeah, that's who we are."

The documentary could've been called Once Were Brothers: Especially Levon.

Levon and I were the first two together in The Hawks. We were the original brothers. For a long time, it was just Levon and me, and the other guys were catching up to that. He was like a brother to me, and then eventually everybody became part of this circle.

The part where he's in the hospital, dying, and you're holding his hand, is pretty emotional. Did that influence how you went forward with your relationships and handling arguments or estrangements?

To what?

To make amends. You two weren't speaking.

You mean, did it teach me a life lesson?

Yeah. His daughter let you into his hospital room. He was unconscious. It was a shame that you weren't able to make amends.

There was no amends for me to make. I never had a problem with Levon. Over time, he went into a place and part of it had to do with he was struggling, with his health and with other ways, and he got ornery. I talk in the movie that it was always somebody else's fault. He had problems with our booking agent and our managers and our lawyers and I was like, "No, no, no, please." He just had that thing inside of him that ate him up. And finally, all those guys were gone and I was left, and then he pointed it at me. I knew where it came from and I just didn't make it an issue for me. I understood it and so I was like, "Whatever, I'm going to take the high road and bless him."

The Band broke up in much the same way many bands break up. Addiction is a big reason. In the film, your ex-wife (now a therapist specializing in addiction recovery) talks about how it is considered a disease now. Back then you just think someone is flaky or irresponsible or an ass.

We didn't know. We didn't know what the deal was.

On your new album, you wrote a song "Once Were Brothers" with lyrics about missing your brothers and now they're gone, brothers no more, we lost our connection. Talk about writing that lyric all these decades later.

This was a song that while everything was going on — the 50th anniversary of The Band [the self-titled album] coming up and having written Testimony, and even working on volume two of my memoir now — all of these things swirling around, one day I sat down and I was missing Richard and Rick and Levon. My heart was just sad. There was a sadness in my heart and I started writing something. I didn't know where it was going and it turned out to be that song. It was fulfilling for me to finish and write that song without falling apart. Then after I wrote it, they said, "We want to call the documentary this." So all of these things connecting was magical.

Is "Dead End Kid" the other autobiographical song on the album?

Yes. About growing up here [Toronto] and people thinking your dreams aren't real and I'm like, "Oh yes they are." And here we are a few years later, saying they're more than real.

Sinematic also has a couple of songs about mobsters, "I Hear You Paint Houses" (a euphemism for hiring a hitman) and "Shanghai Blues." "Praying For Rain" is about climate change.

There's "Walk In Beauty Way" that is a connection to my indigenous background on it. There is "Let Love Reign," where I'm remembering John Lennon.

Your lyrics are fantastic — your images, your characters. When are you going to write a screenplay or a novel?

I am. That's what I do. That's what I do all the time. These are all little movies.

When is it going to be a big movie?

We're working on that right now. I'm working with somebody right now. There's a lot going on these days.