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Robbie Robertson on building The Band


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Judy Woodruff: Next: the highs and lows of a famous rock group called The Band led by Canadian guitarist Robbie Robertson.

The story is told in a new documentary.

And Jeffrey Brown has the story, part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The honor of opening last fall's Toronto International Film Festival went not to a splashy new Hollywood film, but to the documentary "Once Were Brothers."

And why not? At its heart is Robbie Robertson, a local boy who made it big after first hearing early rock 'n' roll in the 1950s.

Robbie Robertson: When this music came along, that was like, that's it. That's the sound. That's the feeling. That's the rebel spirit. Let's go.

Jeffrey Brown: At 15, he would join the rockabilly band of Ronnie Hawkins and begin touring all over North America.

A few years later, he was playing lead guitar as Bob Dylan went electric.

Robbie Robertson: He opened some doors that we didn't know what was behind those doors before. There was a way -- he could write about things that nobody wrote about before.

Jeffrey Brown: Most of all, Robertson was lead guitarist and songwriter for one of rock's most important and beloved bands, called simply The Band, Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, all Canadian, and Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born singer and drummer.

With songs like "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Weight," The Band brought together disparate influences to make something new. In the documentary, Bruce Springsteen recalls hearing the seminal 1968 album "Music From Big Pink."

Bruce Springsteen: There is no bad that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts than The Band, simply their name, The Band. That was it.

Robbie Robertson: And when "Music From Big Pink" came out, people said, what is this?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Robbie Robertson: Where did this come from? This doesn't fit in. This isn't what's happening. And we were like, thank you. Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: That's what you wanted to hear.

Robbie Robertson: Because our job is not to be what's happening. Our job is to be as honest as we can about this noise that we're making.

Jeffrey Brown: It all culminated in 1976 in San Francisco with one of rock's most renowned concerts, The Band's Last Waltz, made into a film by Martin Scorsese, and featuring a long list of stars, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and many others, capped off by Dylan.

It was music that changed its time. But Daniel Roher, the director of "Once Were Brothers," and also from Toronto, is just 26. And he says the music has lived on for many in his generation.

Daniel Roher: I would say that the cool kids know The Band.

Jeffrey Brown: The cool kids know The Band?

Daniel Roher: Yes. I mean, the music's timeless. Well, when I came to this project, these guys were mythic, larger-than-life, legendary. You watched "The Last Waltz," and they're just the coolest, most incredible guys. You know, they just occupy this mythic space in rock 'n' roll history, and cultural history.

And I think what really came into focus when I made the film is that these rock 'n' roll idols of mine, these heroes of mine, these guys that I worshipped, they were just like me. You know, they were just like five guys trying to do the best they could, battling their insecurities and their demons, and it's very challenging circumstances, trying to navigate success.

Jeffrey Brown: Indeed, the brotherhood didn't last, amid drugs, alcohol, depression, squabbles over direction and resentments by other members of The Band of Robertson, who they claimed took too much credit, including when it came to collecting songwriting royalties.

In a 1983 memoir, Levon Helm wrote bitterly of his former best friend. Helm died in 2012 of throat cancer.

Richard Manuel took his own life in 1986. Rick Danko struggled with addiction for years, and died in 1999 at age 56. Garth Hudson is the only other surviving band member.

Robbie Robertson told his side of the story in his 2016 memoir, "Testimony," the basis for Daniel Roher's new film.

Daniel Roher: I think it's a bittersweet story. I think it's a bittersweet story, because, ultimately, we're left with this phenomenal body of work, this music that will live on forever.

But, at the same time, that comes with the acrimony that you -- we spoke to earlier, and that comes with the bitterness and sadness and tragedy.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 76, Robertson has written music for many films, often working with Scorsese, including composing the score for "The Irishman."

And he recently released a new album, "Sinematic," his first in eight years, including songs like "Dead End Kid" featuring Irish singer Glen Hansard, that tell stories from his own life.

Robbie Robertson: Each song is like a little movie, and some of them are about -- not about who I broke up with, but growing up in Toronto at one time, when I was just getting started, and I had that dreams.

And I thought, I'm going to do this, and I think I could do that. And, oh, it would be great to go out in the world, and I want to write songs and write -- and people were like, what? Oh, you're going to be disappointed. That's not going to happen.

Jeffrey Brown: It did happen for Robbie Robertson, along with much drama and pain along the way.

The film "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band" is now showing around the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Great music.

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