A little over an hour before Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) — the only Canadian documentary in the festival’s history to be selected for the gala opening — co-executive producer Ron Howard announced at the press conference that the film had found a distributor outside of Canada.
“Magnolia is going to distribute the movie theatrically around the world. We’ve very excited about this collaboration and partnership,” said Howard onstage in the small media room, alongside his business and creative partner in Imagine Documentaries, Brian Grazer, plus the 26-year-old Toronto director Daniel Roher, and the subject himself, Robertson.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — based on Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, covering the first three decades of his life — was also executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who directed The Band’s 1978 swan song concert doc The Last Waltz. The U.S. film legends partnered with Canada’s White Pine Pictures, Bell Media Studios and Universal Music’s Shed Creative on the project. The doc will air on Bell’s on-demand channel Crave.
Of having such noted heavyweights as partners, Roher, a humble, articulate young man, said he didn’t feel any pressure. “It’s really amazing. I have this legendary team surrounding me, these three gentlemen and I really only felt empowered. It was only exciting and empowering to be working with these people. It was very much validating my own instincts in a lot of ways and everything that I imagined brought to the table, just took my creative instincts and put it on a rocket ship. And I guess went to the moon in this case, which is appropriate.”
As the title suggests, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band tells the story of this revolutionary “band” of brothers: Robertson, Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel (d. 1986), Rick Danko (d. 1999) and Levon Helm (d. 2012). 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 their self-titled album. 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.” The doc includes present-day interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Peter Gabriel, David Geffen and Ronnie Hawkins.
During the press conference Howard said he and Frazer — whose company has produced films on Luciano Pavarotti, Eminem (Eight Mile), The Beatles (Eight Days A Week), Wu-Tang Clan (An American Saga, which just debuted on Hulu), as well as the show Empire — differ greatly in their connection and association with music.
“I was never one of those kids that had music going all the time; I was not one of those people,” Howard admitted. “It wasn’t in my household, but I obviously understood the power of music and what it could mean to movies, to television shows, and things like that.
“As I started to move especially into the documentary world as a director and, in this case, as a producer, here’s what’s amazing: You have these powerful stories and yet there’s this other element. Not only could you never possibly afford to have a soundtrack in a motion picture like we have in Once Were Brothers, it’s incredible. So it’s a great experience for audiences, but you have the story of human beings and you have their voices in this other mode, this other medium, that’s equally powerful and works on this kind of amazing, subliminal level.
“That’s one of the reasons why films that combine great narrative story, rich set of characters with incredible music is captivating for audiences. And so, therefore, it’s also really exciting for filmmakers.”
Grazer said simply, “I love music.” He always listens to music and “made music,” presumably meaning he’s a musician himself. He and Howard’s first movie together, Night Shift, contained hit songs; Boomerang “had multiple platinum out albums;” and he produced The Doors film because “I just had this thing about Jim Morrison when I was going to high school.”
He then recalled a New York Times editor telling him hip-hop was “an inferior subculture.” He disagreed, believing it was going to be “the culture.” He brought it up because he sees a parallel between hip-hop and the music The Band created. “What interested me about that as it relates to Robbie is it was the beginning of a movement and we can actually proof this out almost like a cinematic equation, which is exactly what you do, by the way, in documentaries.”
He called The Band “the quintessential survival story for a rock band” and “the progenitors of a movement.” He pointed out, as many journalists have no doubt discovered this week, as Robertson does press for the film and his forthcoming solo album, Sinematic, “every time you have a conversation with Robbie, he has something incredibly interesting to say, incredibly unique stories that help inform not only The Band itself, but its relationship to music itself. He’s just a legendary person and we would say, ‘Let’s find a way to work together.’ And when Robbie says that, it happens, and this is evidence of that.
“I know that Ron and I, and, and Marty’s not here at the moment, but we’re all gigantically proud of being able to be associated with Robbie and in this movie.”
At the end of the press conference, the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, presented Robertson with a key to the city, explaining, “You have stood as an example to those people and to many others to explore your talent, not to be afraid to produce something, whether it’s music or a film or a piece of art that leads the way, to be determined to succeed and to be whatever you want to be and to never stop telling your own story.”
“This is quite beautiful, guys,” said Robertson. “I’m really touched by this and it’s a complete surprise to me. So thank you very, very much from the bottom of my heart. This is my hood, and now I’ve got the key and that goes with it.”