New documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band to open TIFF 2019

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which will premiere at TIFF in September, tells the story of the Canadian musician's early life and the formation of "one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music."

Film by Canadian director Daniel Roher will premiere at TIFF opening-night gala on Sept. 5

A new documentary about the life of Canadian musician and songwriter Robbie Robertson will open the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in September. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

For the first time in its history, the Toronto International Film Festival will open with a Canadian-made documentary.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which will have its world premiere in September, tells the story of the Ontario-born musician's early life and the formation of "one of the most enduring groups in the history of popular music," organizers said in a news release Thursday.

Inspired by Robertson's 2016 memoir Testimony and directed by non-fiction filmmaker Daniel Roher, the documentary combines archival footage, photography and some of The Band's most iconic songs.

It also includes interviews with some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel and Martin Scorsese, who helped develop the documentary as executive producer.

Scorsese famously filmed The Band's 1976 farewell concert appearance in San Francisco, and later used the footage in his 1978 documentary The Last Waltz.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band will be featured at the TIFF opening-night gala at Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto on Sept. 5.

"This is one of Toronto's great stories of a hometown hero," said Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director. 

"From his early years in this city, to the inspiration he took from life on the Six Nations reserve, to the impact he's had on generations of music lovers, Robertson emerges in Roher's film as a truly Canadian-made superstar."

Robertson, far right, with the four original members of The Band, would go on to have a famous feud with bandmate Levon Helm, second from left. (Elliott Landy)

Robertson has spoken candidly with CBC News about his childhood in Toronto and how visits with his mother to the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ont., influenced his later work as a songwriter and guitarist.

In a career spanning six decades, the erudite musician, producer and author has undoubtedly earned his place in rock 'n' roll history. He backed Bob Dylan on his ground-breaking 1966 electric world tour and as a member of The Band, went on to help invent a style of folk rock known as Americana.

With its four Canadian members and Arkansas-born drummer and lead singer Levon Helm, the original lineup of The Band remains among the most beloved rock ensembles of all time. Robertson and Helm famously fell out with one another, leading to a decades-long feud that was unresolved when Helm died of throat cancer in 2012. 

After Robertson left The Band, he released several critically acclaimed solo albums and also found success as a music producer in Hollywood. 

In a statement, Robertson said he is "tremendously honoured" the documentary centred on his life will open TIFF.

The rest of the festival's lineup is typically finalized in late August.

TIFF runs from Sept. 5-15.


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