Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band


The name of the band is The Band.

(2019) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, John Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins, John Scheele, Jimmy Vivino, Larry Campbell, George Semkiw. Directed by David Roher

 

There is absolutely no disputing that The Band were one of the most talented and influential ensembles to ever grace a rock and roll stage. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer/singer Levon Helm, bassist/singer Rick Danko, pianist/singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson essentially created the Americana subgenre and made music that was both timeless and timely, both symbolizing an era and transcending it.

They formed as the back-up band to wild blues singer Ronnie Hawkins, known initially as The Hawks. When Bob Dylan absconded with them to back him up during his “Dylan goes electric” tour, they were roundly booed at every appearance. It was only when they went out on their own under their generic “The Band” moniker that they finally began hearing cheers.

Albums like Music From Big Pink and The Band were classics, yielding such songs as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek,” but the strength of The Band was in their tight arrangements, superior songwriting and raw, emotional vocals particularly from Helm but also from Danko and Manuel. It would all come to an end in 1975 with the release of The Last Waltz¸ the group’s last concert (and the last time all five of them would appear together onstage) and the accompanying documentary by Martin Scorsese.

This new film comes mainly from Robertson’s perspective; he is the only band member interviewed for it (although remarks by Helm and Danko appear from earlier interviews) and it is based on his own memoirs. There is sadly a real lack of contemporary footage of the Band in concert, particularly in their days as backup bands for Hawkins and Dylan so there is a lot of reliance on talking head interviews from fans like Scorsese and Springsteen (whose “Atlantic City” they covered on their post-Robertson album Jericho) as well as with Robertson’s wife Dominique and producer John Simon.

Robertson is an engaging storyteller but we really only get his viewpoint – only he and Hudson remain still alive from the group, and Hudson who was notoriously shy, doesn’t appear other than as a performer in the film. Much is made of the group’s drug abuse, with Manuel, Danko and Helm all flirting with heroin (Robertson and Hudson did not, and Robertson blames the group’s eventual dissolution on drug abuse, citing a harrowing story of Manuel getting into a car wreck with Robertson’s wife aboard). Although the film essentially ends with The Last Waltz, it neglects to mention that the group went on to record several albums and tour sans Robertson afterwards, although Robertson insists that he had always intended that The Last Waltz was meant to signal a temporary hiatus and that they always planned to get back together, shrugging it off with a disarming “but they just forgot, I guess.” By that time, Robertson was continuing to record on his own and was also pursuing an acting career.

He also glosses over the post-breakup feuds and enmity having to do with royalties and songwriting credit, which Helm in particular felt should have belonged to the entire group and not just Robertson since they did most of the arranging. Although there was bad blood, Robertson tells that when Helm was dying in 2012, he flew out to be by his side when Helm was on his deathbed.

That the group was once close and had a rare kind of cohesion can’t be argued; that there was bad blood afterwards – well, even brothers fight; sometimes more bitterly than most. This is a pretty decent tribute to a group that deserves more recognition than they got from the public, having shaped country, rock and roll and folk music with a sound that at the time was revolutionary but toI day is merely influential. I would have preferred that the film be less hagiographic and include more voices than just Robertson’s but that wasn’t to be; Manuel passed away in 1996, Danko in 1998 and Helm as mentioned before in 2012. With three fifths of the group gone, it just makes one wonder how the perspective would have changed had some of them been there to give their point of view.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty nifty performance footage. A bittersweet look at one of the most influential groups of all time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the celebrity testimonials.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robertson penned two songs for the 1959 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks album Mr. Dynamo when Robertson was only 15 years old.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beanpole

The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!