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

Bang! The Bert Berns Story


This is what producing a classic rock track looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Steven van Zandt (narrator), Paul McCartney, Doug Morris, Keith Richards, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Carmen de Noia, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Goldstein, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Joel Selvin, Robin Levine, Ilene Berns, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison, Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun, Solomon Burke, Brenda Reid, Cissy Houston. Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles

 

We know who the great performers of the rock and roll/R&B era are. We know their faces, we know their music. The people who are behind the scenes may not necessarily be as well known other than a few like Phil Spector and George Martin.

Chances are that very few of you reading this have ever heard of Bert Berns, but you certainly know his music as both a songwriter and producer. He’s responsible for such classic songs as “Twist and Shout,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “I Want Candy” and “Piece of My Heart.” His career spanned a mere eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image.

Berns was a Jewish kid from the Bronx and the last guy you’d think of as a one of the movers and shakers of soul music in the 60s, but truth is a strange motha. He was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and his heart was severely damaged. He spent most of his convalescence learning to play guitar and piano. His doctors warned his parents that it was unlikely he would survive past his teens; they were proven wrong but not by much.

In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo. He brought that love of Latin rhythms into his music. He sort of slid into the music business sideways, working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm. He wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay, including the novelty hit “A Little Bit of Soap.” He eventually was brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music. One of the first songs he wrote while employed by them was “Twist and Shout.” It was brought to Phil Spector who did a version that ended up somewhat lame. Horrified, Berns determined to produce the records made of his songs. He took the Isley Brothers into the studio and did the song up right. A legend was born.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We get to hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. She pulls no punches and gets emotional talking about certain aspects of his life. She has a take-no-crap attitude that isn’t uncommon among true New Yorkers and compared to some of the others interviewed who are more circumspect, her testimony is rather refreshing.

The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. His friendship with Carmen de Noia was helpful to his career; while de Noia wasn’t a made man he was the sort of guy who knew a guy, if you get my meaning. Ilene had danced in a club owned by Morris Levy, not just the chief of Roulette Records but the front of the mob in the music business. Bert wasn’t uncomfortable rubbing elbows with these sorts. De Noia also is interviewed for the film and other than Ilene is the most interesting tale-teller of the lot.

Berns died way too young, his heart finally giving out on December 30, 1967 at the age of 38. It’s always the brightest flames that burn out the soonest. Moreover, he knew that his life would end prematurely – he beat the odds in surviving as long as he did. In fact, “Piece of My Heart” is actually about his heart condition, but there’s no need to feel sorry for him. In his time, he nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records; he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it. It’s music that made the music of today what it is. You may not know the name of Bert Berns but you know his music and chances are, you love it. One viewing of this film and you won’t forget his name anytime soon. I guarantee you won’t want to.

REASONS TO GO: A soundtrack that is absolutely stellar. One of the forgotten geniuses of rock and roll finally gets his due.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is basically a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and lots and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Berns-written hit “I Want Candy” got its title from a risqué book by Terry Southern.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Circus Kid