Review by Sean Boelman
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is a new music documentary inspired by Robertson’s memoir Testimony. Despite generic execution from director Daniel Roher, the film is very memorable because of its fascinating story.
The movie tells the story of Robbie Robertson, the beloved songwriter and former lead guitarist of classic rock group The Band. Focusing almost exclusively on Robertson’s musical career, the film plays out similarly to a lot of other rock docs, but if one is a fan of the era of music in which Robertson and his group were most active, this is sure to be an entertaining watch.
At times, the movie does start to feel a bit repetitive, but that is also partially because the film fits a tried-and-true formula to the tee. Still, if the viewer gets invested in Robertson’s rags-to-riches tale, the movie moves along at a solid pace. Even if the film doesn’t have the depth or impact it could have, it is still an entertaining and informative biography.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is paying tribute to Robertson and making the viewer admire his creativity and hard work. The movie shows Robertson’s rise within the context of the genre of music to which he contributed, allowing the viewer to understand the tremendous impact he had on the industry. One almost wishes that the film had done more with the other members of the group, but this is more Robertson’s story than The Band’s story.
The movie tells its story through some pretty compelling interviews. Of course, a majority of the film’s material comes from Robertson himself, which is understandable given that the movie is inspired by his memoir. It is frequently fascinating to hear him talk about his own life. Other interviewees include such notable figures as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton.
As is the case with most music documentaries, the soundtrack is excellent, being filled with great music from the film’s subject, but more easily could have been done with the music. Something that was largely missing from the movie was performance footage. The music was more often used as a supplement to everything else than a medium in its own right.
Visually, Roher’s film is cohesive and competent, if safe and by-the-book. The interviews are well-composed and incorporated effectively. Much of the rest of the movie is told through archive photos that are accompanied by the voiceover narration from the interviews. While this is enough to keep the viewer invested, a bit more variety would have been appreciated.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band works because of its fascinating story, but there is a lot more that could have been done. Perhaps with a bit more stylistic ambition, the film could have been even more successful.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band is now playing in theaters.