Robbie Robertson recalls his earliest music memory of being on the Six Nation Indian Reserve in New York and everyone around him could play an instrument. “I thought I needed to get into this club,” the musician says.
Growing up surrounded by music and hearing elders on the reservation tell stories stuck out for Robertson. “My mom took me to hear a story being told by an elder. He was telling the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker,” and Robertson knew he wanted to tell stories.
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He has been doing that ever since, writing and composing music and songs. He wrote his memoir “Testimony” in 2016, and that inspired producers to approach him about a documentary, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” which hit theaters this past weekend.
“They were coming up with people who they wanted to direct it, but I didn’t feel any of it,” Robertson admits. It wasn’t until Daniel Roher came along as a possible director that his interest was piqued. While others thought Roher might be too young, Robertson went with his gut instinct. “This guy was on a mission and there was a passion for what he wanted to do,” he says.
Going with gut instinct was a gamble and one that paid off. Roher gives an overview of Robertson’s life and sought archival footage and photos to trace his early life through to his involvement in the Band. He found things that had long been forgotten about. To Robertson, it showed him his dedication.
Shortly after, Imagine Entertainment saw a rough cut and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer came on board. Martin Scorsese heard about it, and he too saw a rough cut. It wasn’t just behind the scenes where the bar was raised. In front of the camera, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Eric Clapton all shared their stories and the reverence with which they hold Robertson with. Roher examined how the “Music from Big Pink” album influenced people like Clapton, who quit Cream after listening to the Band’s debut.
“Music was the voice of the generation,” Robertson says. He finds contemporary music enjoyable, but it’s not the voice of the generation in the same way it was back then. He clarifies: “I think there’s always great music being made, but its job nowadays is just to be cool, really good and entertaining.”
He also collaborated with Scorsese on “The Irishman.” It’s a partnership that dates back to 1976’s “The Last Waltz,” when Scorsese was shooting the concert film about the Band. The two began their behind-the-scenes work on “Raging Bull” and each new movie is “like starting over. It’s never picking up where we left off,” Robertson says. “Each time is a different challenge and that’s one of the exciting things.”
When it came to “The Irishman,” Scorsese went for a quiet approach to the film, not just in editing, but in sound and his music. “He didn’t want it to sound like movie music,” Robertson explains. That instruction cuts of 99% of what he knew and he had to find something that didn’t fall into the “movie music” crack and something that worked over the five decades. “It was trial and error,” Robertson admits. In the end, he settled for a haunting mood.
While working on “The Irishman,” Robertson penned the song “Once Were Brothers.” It was something that had been skirting around the back of his mind. It was easy to write: he put his hands on the piano, and the words started coming out for him. The inspiration was the documentary. “I miss these guys,” he says of former bandmates Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel (all of whom but Hudson have passed away). He adds, “They played such an incredible part in my story and my journey.”