Robbie Robertson on his new documentary Once Were Brothers

Famed Canadian guitarist Robbie Robertson is the driving force behind the new documentary called Once Were Brothers. The film gives an in-depth and personal look at his former band called The Band.
Robbie Robertson's new album, called Sinematic, finds inspiration from his upcoming film projects. (Don Dixon )

Robbie Robertson is the legendary guitarist and main songwriter of the band called The Band. In his upcoming documentary Once Were Brothers, Robertson opens up about the complete story behind the early days of the band's formation. The film captures the raw and honest reality from the band's inception to dissolution. 

The documentary will be opening the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Robertson sat down with q host Tom Power to reflect on what The Band was, what it could have been and why it ended. He also discussed why now was the time for a definitive documentary on the legendary group and what it's like to tell their story on his own.

Here is part of that conversation.

On the song Once Were Brothers

It's a direct reflection of my experience in the brotherhood of the band and when I think about how Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm are no longer with us, it's a very deep sadness for me. We went through so much together and so many amazing things. In writing my book Testimony, which is actually the origin of the documentary, it was so much to relive, so much to go into, so many incredible joys and risks. In this song, I was paying homage to that and I was also addressing this sadness that I feel that three of the guys are no longer with us.

On making the film Once Were Brothers

One of the extraordinary things for me that came out of this documentary was how heartfelt it is. I didn't know that was going to be what we were going after and the result of it. When Martin Scorsese came in as executive producer on it, he really pointed out the value in that emotional thing that was coming across from the brotherhood of the band. He had suggestions and they were really about not letting the editing get in the way of the emotion. He was saying that when we go to that place that it is so heartfelt, don't cut away because it's that moving and it's that valuable. 

Guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson joined host Tom Power in the q studio in Toronto, Ontario. (Enrica Ammaturo/CBC)

On reliving his memories in the film

I look at it and there is a very strong tie and there is a bit of a distance too because time has passed. I am very much on a mission of working on what I'm doing today and what I need to be doing tomorrow. I'm not really big on redoing or reliving. If there weren't so many stories to tell, if it wasn't such an extraordinary journey and experience, I would completely move on. I've been so fortunate to be part of world-changing events and things in music, but in the meantime, I'm busy.

On working with Martin Scorsese

We have a certain musical and film connection that we discovered early on when we were making the Last Waltz. I thought there was something so deep in him and his appreciation of music. As I got to know him more, it just went deeper and deeper. He was turning me on to movies that I'd never seen. It was a fantastic experience and seeing them with him and through his eyes was so rewarding. I was turning him on to music that he had not experienced before. This connection that we made just stuck. 

Robertson's album Sinematic includes hand drawn cover art for each song. The image above is for the song called Walk in Beauty Way. (Universal Music Group )

On telling the story of the band

I felt like I'm a storyteller and it's one of the great stories that I have to tell. It was directly inspired by my book, Testimony. My story is a big part of that -- this brotherhood and this experience with the band. So, if they were going to tell my story, that's got to be part of it.

On the dissolution of the band

We were living in a time period where experimenting with drugs was so common. There were struggles in the group, because of the effects and the distraction that drugs can bring into something. It affected the relationship and it affected the music. It affected my writing because I can write for this group when everybody was present. This was a very particular group of five members and each member played such a pivotal role. If somebody drifted off, it wasn't the same. When the gang is really supportive of one another, we can make magic. And when it's not like that, we can't be successful because there's something in the way.

On new generations being inspired by the band

The discovery process for people is fantastic. If they're going to see this film or hear this new record, that discovery process is something that gives me a little chill inside.

Robbie Robertson's new documentary, Once Were Brothers, will open the Toronto International Film Festival tonight. The film is set to be released in theatres in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver soon. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full extended interview with Robbie Robertson, download our podcast or click 'Listen' near the top of this page.

— Produced by Mitch Pollock and Frank Lockyer Palmer

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