There has been a recent spate of documentaries from the survivors of the 60s, those artists that manage to outlive and outlast many of their colleagues and collaborators, resulting in decades of music making. The latest, Once Were Brothers, draws from Robbie Robertson’s story, a unique narrative where a half-native kid from Toronto became the center of a movement that birthed Americana.

Robertson’s rise from at the age of 15 convincing Ronnie Hawkins to record his songs (and eventually employ him), through his days touring behind Bob Dylan and the eventual formation of The Band, occupy the majority of this well-realized if slightly hagiographic doc. The perspective is clear – this is Robbie’s telling of Robbie’s story – and thus those with whom there were massive disagreements (his bandmates in particular) have their negativity contextualized in a particular way.

Springsteen, Clapton and Scorsese repeat stories they’ve told many times, but their inclusion is no less impactful. Daniel Roher’s film is handsomely shot and well-paced, using a syncopated editing rhythm that easily could have been hokey but somehow manages to work within context. It’s only in contrast to a film from earlier this year, the exceptional David Crosby doc Remember My Name, that the film falters, feeling more one-sided and less self-reflecting than one may expect. There’s little to indicate from our subject how Robbie thought of others, particularly in making the difficult decisions he had to make, and seems to have convenient (if not inaccurate) motivations for facilitating the disbanding of this brotherhood.

The songs of course are killer, drawn from a rich catalogue of tracks written by Robertson and others that influenced and shaped his life. One particularly moving sequence uses a Joni Mitchel song to emphasize the point, illustrating a very different voice from that period of time, another Canadian who found on the shores of the Pacific in California a new footing, sheltered from the cold but never quite ridding themselves of the home they left behind.

Once Were Brothers is a straightforward yet effective look at a musical legend, lacking some of the weight that long term fans (this one included) may have hoped for. Still, as a primer of the man and his music, and a kind of side-project to the sublime Scorsese film The Last Waltz, there’s a lot to admire about Roher’s film.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.