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And The Band Played On

The Savoy Theater. Photo by Ian Lewis.
Eight weeks of staying home. Staying safe. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself with a little extra time on my hands lately.

Luckily for all of us, the Savoy Theater is offering nearly a dozen films you can stream at home, with more on the way. “Ticket” prices range from $6.50 to $12 per film with 50 percent going directly to the Savoy. The film selections are a smart mix of documentaries and deep indie fare, handpicked by Savoy owner James O’Hanlon.

As a fan of The Band—and of a good music doc—Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (2019) seemed like the obvious place for this reviewer to start.

The first full-length feature from 26-year-old Canadian director Daniel Rohr, Once Were Brothers opens with a young Robertson splitting his time between his home in Toronto and the Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario, where he spent summers with his mother’s extended family. It follows his rise to fame with The Band, focusing mainly on the period from 1960 to 1976, and ends with hardly a mention of what became of Robertson and his “brothers” in the 40 years since they walked offstage for the last time in The Last Waltz (1978).

Loaded with archival footage and interviews with rock legends—including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Bruce Springsteen—the film suffers from a lack of a second perspective on what really went down between Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist/musical guru Garth Hudson during all those years on the road and in the Catskills.

In fairness, the film carries Robertson’s name on the masthead, and the credits reveal it is based on his 2016 memoir, Testimony. Rohr, in an interview published in the Toronto Star, makes it clear that his film is not an authoritative history of The Band: “This is the story of The Band through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. It’s his truth, and it’s very important that people understand the difference there… I was making a film about Robbie Robertson.”

That admission aside, it is striking what Rohr chooses to omit. First, his interviews with Garth Hudson, the only other surviving member of The Band, conducted in Hudson’s adopted hometown of Woodstock, N.Y., do not appear in the film.

Rohr also fails to note that one of the featured subjects, Dominique Robertson, is Robertson’s ex-wife. Watching the film alone, one would conclude that she and Robbie are still married. The film further fails to note that The Band reunited, sans Robbie, to tour and release a pair of records in the 80s and 90s.

Still, despite its factual deficiencies, Once Were Brothers is an engrossing look at the group and served as a springboard for a deeper dive into the band’s complex story.

My post-film googling led me to Levon Helm’s autobiography The Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, which I was able to pick up from the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, curbside.

Levon’s story, co-written by rock biographer Stephen Davis (who has also written biographies of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Marley, to name a few), covers, in great detail, his entire life, from his birth in 1940 to the start of his film career in the late 80s.

The only American in The Band, Levon grew up around Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, where he worked in his family’s cotton fields and played music whenever and wherever he could. Taken under the wing of rockabilly performer Ronnie “The Hawk” Hawkins, Levon’s professional music career began on the Canadian dive bar circuit, where, he recalls, Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks made good money rocking harder and faster than pretty much anybody else at the time: “in Canada we were unique and exotic, playing the most uninhibited, wildest rock and roll that hip Torontonians had ever heard. They loved the band and did everything they could to make us feel at home.”

The Hawks frequently changing lineup gave opportunities for young musicians to slot in, and by 1961 Ronnie was backed by a quintet consisting of Levon and four Canadian teenagers, all prodigiously talented, who would eventually shed Hawkins and become The Band.

Levon’s folksy, flowing, and captivating collection of stories reads more like a campfire hangout than a detailed biography, although it deftly fulfills the duties of the later. Notably, it includes a track-by-track breakdown of all of The Band’s songs, on each album, offering insight to the group’s creative process that was built, at least initially, on collaboration.

The book also describes, in heartbreaking detail, pianist and singer Richard Manuel’s suicide while on tour in 1986—an event never mentioned in Once Were Brothers.

Levon doesn’t hide the grudge he holds against Robertson for the way things turned out—Robbie with a new career in Hollywood and financially stable from owning almost all publishing credits for The Band’s songs, with the rest of The Band struggling to pay the bills or, in Manuel’s case, deceased—and his bitterness peaks in the section detailing his memories of The Last Waltz.

According to Levon, the idea of holding and filming one last big concert before dissolving The Band was entirely Robertson’s: “I went along with it [The Last Waltz] like a good soldier, but for the record, I didn’t get a lot of joy from seeing The Band fold itself up.”

Sixteen years after publishing The Wheel’s on Fire, Levon Helm received his first Grammy Award for his solo album, Dirt Farmer. That award would be followed by two more before his death from cancer in 2013.

A moving, posthumous documentary, Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film about Levon Helm (2013), gives a glimpse into the final years of his life, and it’s clear that time only exacerbated his feelings of bitterness toward Robertson and what ultimately became of a band that, for a short time in the early ’60s, was known as Levon and The Hawks.

The Band came by its name essentially by default—they could never come up with one—but it fits perfectly given their arc. Corrupted by fame, drugs, money, jealousy, and mismanagement, the story of The Band is one of the quintessential American rock group. A shame, considering their immense talents and the propitious brotherhood they once shared.

For me, near-total immersion into their music and history has proven to be an endlessly entertaining trip, a great diversion while in quarantine. Not sure what I’ll delve into next. But seeing as I’m not in Woodstock in 1968, and I don’t possess any notable musical talents, I should probably, at the very least, trim my beard.