Robbie Robertson: The Songwriter as Filmmaker

Music Features Robbie Robertson
Robbie Robertson: The Songwriter as Filmmaker

A new documentary film about the Band was almost finished when Robbie Robertson came up with a song called “Once Were Brothers” for his latest solo album Sinematic. When Robertson shared the song with the movie’s 24-year-old director Daniel Roher and the film’s producers Martin Scorsese, Brian Glazer and Ron Howard, these filmmakers were so struck by it that they retitled the film Once Were Brothers. The song’s evocation of men who once came together to do great things, only to later drift apart in disarray, seemed to sum up the mood of the movie, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 21 and nationally on February 28.

This is just one example of the way Robertson’s sudden flood of projects this past fall and winter are interacting. Also on Sinematic is “Remembrance,” which plays under the closing credits of Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster masterpiece, The Irishman. The movie in turn inspired “I Hear You Paint Houses,” a duet with Van Morrison that Robertson wrote about the gangster slang for a hitman’s job: when he splatters blood on the wall, they say he’s “painting houses.”

Morrison, who sang on the Band’s 1971 Cahoots album and 1978 The Last Waltz album, is a talking head in Roher’s film, as are Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. Once Were Brothers tells the story of the Band from Robertson’s perspective, from 1960, when the 16-year-old Canadian first joined the Hawks, an Arkansas band led by Ronnie Hawkins and featuring a 20-year-old drummer named Levon Helm, to the 1976 Last Waltz concert, the last time the five members of the group performed together in public.

Like a Greek drama, the story builds to a triumphant peak, descends into tragedy and recovers for one last night of glory. The peak was the 1969 album, The Band, also known as “the brown album.” To mark that record’s 50th anniversary, Robertson assembled a deluxe box set that includes the remastered original album in three formats (regular CD, Blu-Ray audiophile CD and two 45 RPM 12-inch vinyl discs), 19 bonus tracks, the Band’s entire performance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, a DVD of the 1997 movie Classic Albums—The Band, and a replica of the 1969 “Rag Mama Rag” vinyl single.

When they made that album in 1969, the five musicians definitely “were brothers,” but by 1977 they weren’t—and that’s what makes the tale so wrenching. Once the title of the new documentary had changed, Roher shot a new scene with Robertson sitting in a studio at a mixing board.

“You write about what you know,” he tells the camera; “you write about where you’ve been; you write about who you know. When I stumbled onto this song, ‘Once We Were Brothers,’ it really did, for me, zero in on the Band.” The music comes up from the console, and you hear his recorded tenor over a throbbing synth, singing, “Once were brothers, brothers no more. We lost our conviction after the war. There’ll be no revival; there’ll be no encore. Once were brothers, brothers no more.”

There’s something cinematic about the scene evoked by that chorus, as if it’s the final minutes of a movie about Civil War soldiers, about former college roommates or about estranged bandmates. “I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band,” Robertson adds. “It was a beautiful thing; it was so beautiful it went up in flames.”

Once Were Brothers the movie is based on Robertson’s 2016 Testimony memoir, which presents a very different picture of the Band’s final days in the mid-‘70s than drummer Levon Helm does in his 1993 memoir, This Wheel’s on Fire. Helm accuses Robertson of taking more songwriting credit than he deserved and of breaking up a group that had a lot more music to play.

By contrast, Robertson depicts an increasingly dysfunctional quintet with three members who increasingly refused invitations to rehearse, attend meetings or participate in songwriting as problems with alcohol and pills edged into serious heroin habits. As evidence, the new movie serves up an astonishing series of photos of automobiles totaled by Helm, bassist Rick Danko and keyboardist Richard Manuel. Remembering that a drunken Manuel almost killed Robertson’s wife in one crash, Robertson tells the camera, “What can I say? I was pissed off.”

“Somebody had to do the songwriting,” he says over the phone. “That had been my job all along, even back when we were with Ronnie Hawkins. Because I’d been writing songs, I knew how to do it. For a long time, I thought they were being lazy, and I had to do all the work. But then I realized that some people write songs and some people don’t. Ringo doesn’t write songs; Charlie Watts doesn’t write songs. Other people can’t help but write songs. That’s fine; that wasn’t Levon’s job.”

Crucial to the dispute between Robertson and Helm were their differing definitions of songwriting. The former embraced the standard industry definition: songwriting is inventing the melody, chord changes and lyric. Once those are in place, everything else is interpretation—that’s why different artists can perform the same song in different ways.

Helm disagreed. He believed that adding a rhythmic feel or vocal phrasing to a song should also count as songwriting. If that were true, however, every time a song is reinterpreted with a different feel or different phrasing, the songwriting credits should expand. If that were the case, Paul McCartney would have a thousand co-writers on “Yesterday.”

Robertson disbanded the group in 1976, he says over the phone from Los Angeles, “because I concluded that staying on the road was not healthy for us; somebody was going to die. And I was heartbroken when somebody did die.” In 1986, a 42-year-old Manuel hung himself in a Florida hotel bathroom. “And then somebody else died.” In 1999, a 55-year-old Danko died at home of alcohol-related heart failure. “And then somebody else died.” In 2012, a 71-year-old Helm died of throat cancer at a New York hospital.

Despite his insistence on setting the record straight, despite the way the group “went up in flames,” Robertson speaks of his three dead bandmates and the still living keyboardist Garth Hudson with tremendous affection—not only in his book but also in the new movie and in this interview.

When they first met, Robertson writes in Testimony, “I hoped that some of Levon’s southern magic would rub off on me. The two of us started a brotherhood with a big lock on the door. We let no one in until Rick, Richard and Garth arrived. They were the goods. They were road warriors we could go to battle with anytime, anywhere. This band was a real band. No slack in the high wire here. Everybody held up his end with plenty to spare. Over the years, Levon and I did a lot of foolish things and probably could have wound up in prison for some of it. In the end, we did a whole lot more beautiful things, and I am honored to have been in his musical grace.”

The documentary, like the memoir, ends with The Last Waltz, the elaborate farewell concert presented by the Band at San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The event, which included guest turns by Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Hawkins and others connected to the Band’s story, was turned into one of the best rock movies of all time by director Scorsese. As Robertson’s partnership with Helm was ending, his partnership with Scorsese was beginning.

It’s no coincidence that Robertson’s latest solo album is called Sinematic. The chief songwriter for the Band has loved the movies since he was a kid on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario. He grew up to become Scorsese’s housemate when they were both newly divorced bachelors, and he has served as music producer or consultant on 10 of Scorsese’s films, including the latest, The Irishman.

“On a very basic level,” Robertson says, “Marty isn’t keen on traditional music scores. He comes at it from a different place. Not because he doesn’t have tremendous respect for those scores. He says, ‘I like some of those, but I don’t know how to do that.’ So I have to write movie music that isn’t movie music. For The Irishman, I came back to writing a theme, not a traditional orchestral theme, but a theme nonetheless. Once I had it, it could be expressed in a lot of different ways—here it sounds like the ‘50s; there it sounds like the ‘70s, and so on.”

That theme is heard on The Irishman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, alongside early R&B hits such as the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” as well as lounge music such as Jackie Gleason’s “Melancholy Serenade” and Perez Prado’s “Que Rico el Mambo.” In addition, Scorsese plucked two tracks from Sinematic for the movie: the Morrison duet and the instrumental “Remembrance.”

“Finding the right music for a movie is a mysterious thing,” Robertson says. “We love doing it together, but it’s not a walk in the park. It doesn’t always come flying out of the darkness; sometimes you have to go in there after it. It’s different every time; that’s one thing that keeps me on my toes. Every movie we’re starting all over again, and I have to reach into this jukebox in my head and start connecting pieces. We’re start throwing things at each other and see what sticks.”

And the two men are already working on their 11th collaboration: an adaptation of David Grann’s non-fiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. This story about the murder of Osage Indians in 1920s Oklahoma to steal their oil rights project reconnects Robertson to his American Indian heritage as a Mohawk in Ontario. Even after he moved off the Reserve into Toronto and discovered his birth father was a Jewish gangster, he remained fascinated by his First Peoples background. He even devoted two of his solo albums, 1994’s Music for the Native Americans and 1998’s Contact from the Underworld of Redboy to those roots.

But long before he ever met Scorsese, Robertson was obsessed with the cinema. He loved everything from Billy Wilder comedies and Howard Hawks westerns to Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realism. And as he wrote such classic Band tracks as “The Weight,” “Ophelia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” he began to see the songs as mini-movies.

He could see the landscape in a long shot; he could see the characters in close-ups. And he cast his fellow musicians in different roles for each script. Helm might sing lead for “Up on Cripple Creek,” but Danko would sing lead on “It Makes No Difference,” and Manuel would sing lead on “Rockin’ Chair.” Hudson might play organ on one song, piano on another and soprano sax on a third.

“I thought of these songs as movies,” Robertson agrees. “I saw ‘The Weight,’ for example, as this movie that goes from one episode to another. A guy’s trying to leave, and somebody says, ‘While you’re there, check in with Joe,’ and that changes everything.

“When I was writing ‘The Weight,’ I had Luis Bunuel in the back of my mind. There was something outrageous about his films like ‘Viridiana’ and ‘Simon of the Desert’ that I was trying to capture. Bunuel’s people are trying to be righteous and it turns inside out on them as they realize the impossibility of sainthood. When I wrote a song, I knew who was going to sing it, because I was casting a movie. It was like Bergman using the same actors in different roles for each film.”

Even as a teenager, he’d written some songs that Ronnie Hawkins recorded, and he wrote the three songs that Levon & the Hawks recorded for Atlantic in 1964. But these were merely skillful variations on the blues-drenched rockabilly that those two groups were already playing in the bars. It was a huge leap from “Hey Boba Lou” and “He Don’t Love You” to “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” What happened?

Two things happened. First, Levon & the Hawks were hired as Bob Dylan’s backing band for his momentous world tour in 1966. The first half of each show was devoted to Dylan performing alone with acoustic guitar and harmonica. The second half was devoted to Dylan and the Hawks performing to the audience’s unending chorus of boos and catcalls, including on one legendary occasion, a shout of “Judas!”

The experience was so excruciating that Helm quit early in the tour and was eventually replaced by Mickey Jones, Tim Allen’s future sidekick in the TV show Home Improvement. But hanging out with Dylan during that time changed Robertson’s concept of what you could do in songwriting.

“Bob and I were suited for one another,” Robertson recalls, “because breaking rules felt comfortable to both of us. Even joining up with him was breaking rules. We didn’t know shit about folk music, and he didn’t know much about being in a rock band. But I could hear how the songs he was writing were connected to the films I was seeing by Bergman, Truffaut and Fellini.”

After the 1966 tour shut down when Dylan had a motorcycle accident, the four remaining Hawks followed Dylan up to Woodstock, New York. The Hawks rented a garish pink house on the outskirts of town and started working on their own music. A recovered Dylan started coming by, and the five men began working on what became known as The Basement Tapes. Eventually Helm returned to the fold.

“I thought I could find a new way of writing,” Robertson says of the pre-Dylan days, “but we were always on the road and there was never time. Those early songs I wrote with my left hand in the back seat of a car. I wasn’t comfortable with that; I didn’t have time to gather my thoughts and reach up into the attic for something more. It had been a dream of mine for years to find that clubhouse, that sanctuary. I believed if we found it, we would find our sound, and we found it in that house up in Woodstock. When we did, we gathered all the musicalities we’d experienced along the way: blues, country, rock ’n’ roll, from playing in the Mississippi Delta to playing with Bob Dylan.”

In Once Were Brothers, Clapton and Harrison marvel at the impact of the Band’s 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink, so radically different from the psychedelic rock of the day. Clapton disbanded Cream in reaction to it. When Dylan first heard “The Weight,” Robertson remembers, he said, “Wait a minute, who wrote that?” “I did,” replied Robertson, who saw Dylan’s surprise melt into pleasure.

Big Pink was a breakthrough for us,” Robertson says now. “It didn’t resemble anything we’d ever done with Ronnie, anything we’d done as the Hawks, anything we’d done with Dylan. It wasn’t a conscious design; we were the last guys in the world to have a plan of how to become rock stars. It was just an outgrowth of woodshedding and playing together for seven years. We finally figured out how to use everything we’d learned along the way.”

Robertson had written only four of the 11 songs on that first album, but as he became obsessed with songwriting, his bandmates became obsessed with the “Forbidden Fruit” of their new stardom. He wound up writing or co-writing all dozen songs on The Band, and his new songs were more cinematic than ever.

You could see the old sailor reminiscing in his “Rocking Chair” on a porch in Virginia. You could see the union organizer in “King Harvest” visiting the rice fields of Louisiana, trying to sign up a sharecropper beneath a yellow October moon. You could see the young man in Arkansas trying to convince his new bride that it was time to pack up the house and travel “Across the Great Divide” in search of a better life. You could see the freed slaves singing, the church bells ringing and the Confederate soldiers slinking away from Richmond as the Civil War ended on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

“I certainly didn’t want it to be Music from Big Pink, Part II,” Robertson says now. “Music from Big Pink was a whole movie unto itself. To me, those two albums don’t sound alike; you want to do your best not to repeat yourself. I wanted to make the next discovery; I wanted to get to the next chapter. Now we were moving deeper into America, a mythical America. The characters and places that most fascinated me were way out in a field; I liked looking in their eyes and seeing what was inside them.”

Now that he was assuming the songwriting responsibilities for the group, he made an unusual decision. Unlike Dylan or anyone in the growing singer-songwriter field that Dylan had inspired, Robertson chose not to sing any of the lead vocals himself. It now seems an obvious decision, because, as Springsteen puts it in the new documentary, Manuel, Helm and Danko were “three of the greatest white singers in rock history—any one of them would have been enough to carry a great band. With all three of them, they were loaded for bear.”

And yet it can’t be easy to step back from the spotlight and let someone else sing the words you wrote. But it made sense to Robertson because he was thinking in motion-picture terms. He was the director and screenwriter, maybe a supporting actor, but Manuel, Helm and Danko were the stars, the leading actors with the big parts. And Hudson was the soundtrack composer, coaxing moody, orchestral sounds out of his multiple keyboards and horns.

The Band was a remarkable achievement, a flawless synthesis of the various strains of American history and American music. Perhaps only four Canadians and an Arkansas drummer could have had the perspective to see the United States as clearly as the Band did. That accomplishment shouldn’t cause anyone to overlook the terrific, if not quite as flawless, new-song collections that followed: 1970’s Stage Fright, 1971’s Cahoots and 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross.

And then it was over. The group reconvened for a final studio album, 1977’s Islands, but the results were underwhelming. Robertson started working on movies with Scorsese and even co-wrote and co-starred in 1980’s Carny. But his solo albums suffered from his underwhelming vocals and from his shift from cinematic songwriting for a collective to more philosophical songwriting as a loner. Meanwhile, Helm and Danko made some interesting solo albums, and then decided to reunite the Band in 1983 and even made three enjoyable albums, though they relied heavily on outside songwriting.

“They asked me if I wanted to join,” Robertson says, “but I wasn’t interested in going back on the road, because I knew what was going to happen. They asked me if they could use the name and go on the road with it, and I gave them my blessing. I thought it was great that everyone could make a solo album, and I didn’t have to tell them what to do. I thought we’d all get a better grip on things and no longer have to battle these addictions. I thought we would get back in a huddle, back in that creative place and make some music as good or better than we ever had. But it didn’t happen.”

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