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‘Once Were Brothers’ tells of The Band’s beginning and end

Dan Webster

Some members of the Facebook community like to pose challenges. Name your 10 favorite movies is a big one.

One that I read not that long ago invited people to talk about their very first rock concert. And it got me to thinking, back to a night in early 1966 when I attended what was my own first rock show. Or at least half of one.

It was on Feb. 12 of that year, in fact, when I and my date Terry Cornett drove from our homes in Virginia Beach, Va., and into the city of Norfolk. It was the night that we took our seats on the floor of the Norfolk Municipal Auditorium.

The night we saw Bob Dylan perform. And in the second half of the show, he came out with an electric guitar — accompanied by the group that became known simply as The Band.

Feel free to be impressed.

It's timely that I should think of The Band, since the documentary "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" is screening through a Vimeo-powered link in conjunction with the Magic Lantern.

Much has been written about The Band over the years, how the quintet emerged out of a group fronted by the singer Ronnie Hawkins, how they got the gig backing Dylan and the horrors of that tour in which fans were upset over Dylans embrace of electric instruments. (I don't remember anyone yelling at the concert I attended; I certainly didn't.)

Then how they became their own band, put out a number of great songs, saw three of the quintet get seduced by drugs and drink, how after a 16-year career they had a final tour culminating in the great Martin Scorsese documentary "The Last Waltz" and how it all ended.

Except, of course, for the aftermath, which included recriminations, enmity between guitarist and main songwriter Robertson and drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, the deaths of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel and, ultimately, of Helm.

It was the enmity that has endured, involved as it does Robertson being credited as writer or co-writer of so many of the group's songs — a situation contradicted by Helm in particular who claimed that the songs were developed as collaborative efforts.

All of that story is told in "Once Were Brothers," though it's all told from Robertson's point of view. It begins with his growing up in Canada, picking up a guitar and teaching himself how to play, getting a chance to perform with Hawkins and being invited to go South with him.

An invite he accepted. At age 16.

The documentary, directed by Daniel Rohrer, is narrated mostly by Robertson, and though Rohrer is credited as screenwriter, the film uses Robertson's memoir "Testimony" as a basis. And while filling his film with lots of archival footage, Rohrer augments it with talking-head interviews with the liked of Hawkins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, David Geffen — not to mention taped talks with the late Danko, Manuel, Helm and even George Harrison.

Rohrer doesn't avoid the Helm-Robertson controversy, though he lets Robertson explain it. And that, of course, is an arguable position. Some fans will never forgive Robertson for what they consider taking credit for the work of others.

Whatever, no one can deny the greatness of those songs. And Rohrer does give us the best of that, a full performance of "The Weight," in which Helm's voice is the featured part.

The argument over who was most responsible for the music The Band created may never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But at least that music remains.

I think it's time to go and listen to it all again.

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