I feel funny writing a blog without first acknowledging what we are all going through together trying to stem off the Coronavirus. I have some of my own thoughts, positive even in the face of all this, that I will share with you at the end of this review.
In the film Bruce Springsteen states, “There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts. Simply the name, The Band, that was it.”
“Come on, let’s jam,” Clapton says excitedly.
They reply, “We don’t do that.” Clapton realizes, “Hey wait a minute, this is a songwriting outfit.”
When you see the history of The Band laid out, first as a back up band for Ronnie Hawkins, and then as the back up band for Bob Dylan, you begin to understand why there was never a true frontman in The Band. No one needed to step up to fill that role because there was already someone in place. It also gives us a glimpse into their natural formation of a group blending together as one, weaving their talents with no particular member standing out. This, obviously on purpose, as no one was going to upstage any star they were working for.
There is a funny part about them backing Bob Dylan. This was when Bob switched from the acoustic folk sound to going electric with a more rock feel. The story goes that Bob thought he’d have more power with a small group backing him and beefing up to electric instruments seemed like a natural evolution. In Bob’s documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, Bob states, “…It was electric but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s modernized just because it’s electric. Country music was electric too.”
Anyway, Robertson says, “…Although Bob thought this was a good idea, his fans didn’t think it was a good idea at all!” He talks about being booed at every show they played, both here and abroad. In the film Bob tells them, “…Whatever happens, don’t stop playing.” He also states the obvious. If the audience wishes he’d still be sticking with straight folk music, “…I don’t understand how fast they are buying up all the tickets!” Bob going electric and all the booing is, of course, legendary history. But it’s cool to see it on film because it shows you how brave it was for Bob to keep going, to keep following his vision, to keep leading the way. It also shows how “gallant” (per Bob), The Band was for sticking with him through all of it. It does get funny when Robertson states in so many words, “Let me get this straight, you rehearse, and then go out and play all of these songs, only to get booed every single night? Strange way to make a buck.”
When the guys decide to go on their own and live in a house together (the Big Pink house in Woodstock), they are able to stretch out both mentally and musically, they discover parts of themselves they never knew they had. Not only is each able to play multiple instruments, but they have a vocal blend that creates a totally unique sound.
And that’s how all of us discovered The Band and their music. Not unlike The Beatles, we knew the names of each player, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm, who arguably became the best known of the group for his lead vocals on some of their biggest songs. Indeed, in the film, Taj Mahal states, if there was an American Beatles, this, would be them.
One of the most fascinating things in this movie is a glimpse into the songwriting process of both Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson. You see Bob come over to the pink house with his typewriter and some song ideas. The Band and he begin to play songs, some of which will become ideas for future famous Bob Dylan songs. But for now, a lot of the lyrics are just placeholders, dumb rhymes just stringing words together. In one, what will become, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” there is a verse,
Most of us are overwhelmed by the genius of Bob Dylan. Here we see a more mortal side–yep, just a bunch of words strung together in rhyme. Of course, he goes on to craft his songs into some of the greatest works ever written, but we discover he is human after all.
Another thing that seems weird is the way the story is told by Robbie. He seems to be performing, over-acting, and disingenuous–I don’t buy it, I don’t believe him. Having his ex-wife Dominique tell a good part of the story adds credibility and is a nice touch, but again, we only get to hear their side of the story.
Trusting Robbie to do the right thing, working with their manager Albert Grossman at the time, proved to be a bad move. Robbie tried to gloss over the situation telling the guys that the money situation would all “even out” because much more money would be coming in via a recording studio that was going to be built by Albert in Bearsville, a hamlet in Woodstock. Robbie told them they would all be partners and share in the profits, but clearly, he knew what he was doing when he chose the final credits to be put on the album. And apparently, Levon’s caution that music business deals like this can ruin a band, and his appeal to Robbie that the guys should be treated equally as brothers, especially having gone through so much together, fell on deaf ears.
This part is not covered in the film, only that Levon and some of the others were apparently extremely upset and thought they deserved more of the writing credits, or at least, more of a fair share of the money made on the songs.
Robbie places someone in the film to explain that he, Robbie, wrote the songs and lessens the others’ contributions by defining them as only, “arrangements.” While this may be true on paper, we don’t get to hear Levon’s or any other Band member’s side of the story. Only that Levon and other members of The Band succumbed to alcoholism and heroin, and that led to Levon, “…not wanting to understand the truth.” The problem here is that there are much larger truths that aren’t covered in the film that no one seems to want to talk about.
Despite my overall feelings I encourage you to see the film—it’s very worthwhile in so many ways.
This is a good time to repeat one of my all-time favorite quotes from Bruce Springsteen, “Trust the art, not the artist.” So it is, with this film.
Until next time, be smart and stay safe,
The post Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — Truth Or Whitewash? appeared first on Classics Du Jour.