There’s a great new documentary available for streaming about the greatest music group ever to emerge from the Hudson Valley. And I don’t mean Steely Dan, who are probably the second greatest. I mean the roots-rock group The Band, who emerged in Woodstock in 1968 with their landmark debut album, “Music from Big Pink,” and who are the topic of the new film, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”
Robertson was The Band’s main songwriter and guitarist, and as the subtitle suggests, the film tells the story of The Band from Robertson’s point of view. It’s adapted in large part from Robertson’s book, “Testimony,” which was published four years ago and which is one of the best-written rock memoirs of all time.
In the film, Robertson recounts how he had been raised in suburban Toronto as Jaime Royal Robertson, without knowing that the man he called dad, James Patrick Robertson, was not his biological father. When his mother, Dolly Robertson – who was a Mohawk raised on the Six Nations Reserve southwest of Toronto – finally had had enough of James Robertson’s physical and emotional abuse, she sat her son down and explained that she was divorcing Mr. Robertson. She also took the opportunity to tell the 13-year-old Robbie that James Robertson was not in fact his natural father. Robbie’s biological father was a man named Alexander Klegerman, who had died in a roadside accident before Robbie was born. She also told her bar-mitzvah age son that Klegerman was Jewish.
Or, as rockabilly bandleader Ronnie Hawkins says with a modicum of glee in the film, “Robbie’s real dad was a Hebrew gangster.”
Robbie’s mother then introduced him to his father’s family, including his father’s brothers, Natie and Morrie Klegerman, who just so happened to be prominent members of Toronto’s Jewish underworld. “They brought me into their world with tremendous love and affection,” recounts Robertson.
Robertson describes how at the time the typical dream of his schoolmates was to own their own bowling alley where you could bowl for free all day. Having already been bitten by the rock ‘n’ roll bug, including its ethos of rebellion against the conformity of suburban life, young Robbie just could not relate.
“These relatives of mine,” he says in the film. “I’m understanding what’s been stirring inside of me all this time. They understand vision. They understand ambition. When I told the Klegermans I had musical ambitions, they were like, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll? You don’t want to be in furs and diamonds?’ And then they were like, ‘Oh, you mean show business!” That they could understand.
That vision and ambition would propel Robertson through good times and bad, and he became the main engine that would drive his fellow musicians in Ronnie Hawkins’s backup band to head out on their own, first as a white R&B group called Levon and the Hawks, then as Bob Dylan’s backup group on his controversial “going electric” world tour of 1965-1966, and later as the Woodstock-based outfit The Band, for whom Robertson wrote signature hits including “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Stage Fright.”
The film includes plenty of archival video and still photography taken in and around Woodstock and West Saugerties, where Big Pink stands till this day. Last time I looked, it was still painted pink.
Seth Rogovoy is editor of the Rogovoy Report, available at rogovoyreport.com
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.