Robbie Robertson on why the Band 'was so beautiful, it went up in flames'

Robbie Robertson is a stoic, imposing figure, but as he sits with Yahoo Entertainment discussing Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, the new documentary executive-produced by his longtime cinematic collaborator Martin Scorsese, he can’t help but get a little choked up. At the very top of the film, which premiered last year at the Toronto Film Festival and hits theaters nationwide this week, Robertson describe the kinship between his former Band-mates thusly: “It was so beautiful, it went up in flames." It’s a quote that resonates with both the viewer and the subject.

“We had one of the most unusual and extraordinary stories of any group in music history. There is nothing comparable to it,” muses Robertson. “Where we started out from, the combination of things — it's so much to go into, you’ve got to see the movie. But in this relationship, and what this documentary is about, is really a lot about the brotherhood. We were so locked in, in a musicality, and in a personal way, that we invented something that had a big effect on the course of music.”

Once Were Brothers traces Robertson’s story from his childhood growing up on a Native American reservation; to Robertson’s then-little-known Hawks (who later evolved into the Band) backing Bob Dylan on tour during Dylan’s “Judas” period (as seen in the exclusive movie clip below); to the creation of the Band’s landmark albums Music From Big Pink and The Band; to their Scorsese-directed farewell concert film The Last Waltz. The documentary is a welcome remind of the Band’s legacy and influence, which extended to the their A-list peers of the day.

“When we came to make our first record, Music From Big Pink, when it came out, people were like, ‘Oh my God. Where did this come from? What's going on?’” Robertson says with a chuckle. “Because it had nothing to do with what was happening in music. It completely separated itself from the pack. …We went into a world, into a dimension of music, and all the things that we had gathered over these years, we put it all in our own gumbo and stirred it up. And when we made this music, it was just about the honesty of what we had gathered in this. So, it had such a strong identity, it had such a strong look, it changed the way people were dressing. We were like, What's going on here?’ These people came, Eric Clapton said, ‘I heard this record, I'm leaving Cream.’ I was like, ‘I don't want that responsibility!’ It sent ripples through music, and through the culture.”

 Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson of The Band pose for a group portrait in London in June 1971. (Phot: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson of The Band pose for a group portrait in London in June 1971. (Phot: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Robertson continues: “So, then, we did this next record, and it was unheard of at this time, that we were like, ‘Well, we're not doing this in a studio. We're making or own world, our own atmosphere.’ It was really just to cut off the world, go in and do what we needed to do. The music that came out of that cemented the deal. This group that was so non-‘we want to be pop stars’… It was the opposite of everything, and somehow, again, the honesty in this music and the depth of it had, you could hear the sound coming from everybody after that. It was a wonderful feeling, but it had nothing to do with it being a plan. It wasn't a plan at all. We weren't trendy, because we didn't know what the trend was, and didn't want to.

“We were, really, again, going into our own world, our own dimension, and discovering a musicality, a sound, everything. So when this record came out it didn't sound like other records, the songs weren't about anything else that anybody was writing about. I wrote a song about the Civil War from the Southern point of view, and people were like, ‘What made you think of that?’ And I thought, ‘It's all I thought of at the time.’ I don't know the answer to any of those things, except that what seemed like a good idea in that moment.”

The Band went on to grace the cover of Time magazine (which was almost unheard-of for rock groups at that time), play Woodstock, and release 10 acclaimed albums, but they couldn’t last forever. “Success and everything [was] having its effect on what we had been, on the brotherhood and everything,” Robertson explains bittersweetly, as he reflects on his broken bonds with bandmates Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, only the latter of whom is still alive.

“People start going in different directions, some getting married and having kids.... It wasn't the same brotherhood as it was. …Now, all this was happening in the late '60s and into the '70s, and what was happening in music in that period, it became a very dark cloud that came over us. There was a lot of drug experimenting going on, and there was a lot of ‘let's see how close to the edge we can drive without going over.’ And nobody is immune to this. It ended up having a big effect on our brotherhood, and it started to break away. There was a deep sadness to that, but it was part of growing and the whole thing going to a destiny that you'd never imagined. And some of that was really harmful.”

The Band (Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel) in 1978. (Photo by Ed Caraeff/Getty Images)
The Band (Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel) in 1978. (Photo by Ed Caraeff/Getty Images)

It’s been quite a journey, but Robertson confesses he didn’t expect to be so touched by Once Were Brothers. “One of the things about this film that I didn't know that this is where it was going to go is. It is extremely moving. It's extremely emotional,” he says. “When you work on something you get lost in the work and everything, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe this is pretty good,’ right? Then, when they showed it at the opening, the audience was overwhelmed with emotion. Oh my, the reaction to it was extraordinary. And it affected me.”

Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s extended Robbie Robertson interview below, in which he also talks about his film-scoring work over the past 40 years with Martin Scorsese and takes us on a visual track-by-track tour of his artwork for his most recent studio album, Sinematic.

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