(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