A documentary by Daniel Roher. Rated PG
It’s intriguing, if not actually ironic, that many of the key progenitors of the Americana movement are Canadian. More precisely, four Ontarians and a stray Arkansan jumped the gun on country rock.
Humble-braggingly called the Band, this earthy quintet centred on the songwriting and guitar-slinging skills of Robbie Robertson. Born to a Mohawk mother and a “Hebrew gangster”, as she described the man who died prior to his birth, the future Robbie Robertson took his last name from his (abusive) adoptive dad and the first from that robot in Forbidden Planet, drawing influences from his unusually diverse relatives.
He also found a father figure in rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins, which is how, at age 15, he hooked up with Hawkins’s state mate Levon Helm, the stalwart singing drummer who would become his best friend and key rival in the Hawks.
Bob Dylan hired them away from Hawkins on his first big electric outing, in 1965, when the former folkie wanted a touring version of his “Like a Rolling Stone” backers. (The film doesn’t acknowledge the influence of Highway 61 guitarist Michael Bloomfield, nor of Roy Buchanan, briefly in the Hawks just before the Dylan days.)
Naturally, we’ve no idea what young director Daniel Roher left out. The filmmakers drew most of their data from Robertson’s book Testimony. As the only surviving Bandster, apart from the notably absent Garth Hudson, the articulate 76-year-old guitarist dominates the screen, and his story unfolds like a trial with only one witness.
Ex-wife Dominique Bourgeois graciously fills in some blanks about their Woodstock retreat, in the house called Big Pink, but no one mentions that they divorced decades ago.
Also on hand, through copious archival stuff or new footage, are Dylan, Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, and others who joined them for their 1976 swan song (alongside fellow Canucks Neil Young and Joni Mitchell).
The sad declines of Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel are glanced over lightly.
Ultimately, the Band’s best evidence is still “The Weight” and Robertson’s other deathless songs, described here by Bruce Springsteen as “sounding like you’ve never heard them before—and like they were always there.”