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Music
Opinion
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Robbie Robertson, the musician who wanted to make movies

A contemporary of Bob Dylan, the guitarist was the driving force behind The Band, a group that returned rock to its rural roots

Robbie Robertson, the musician who wanted to make movies
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson sing 'I Shall Be Released' onstage on November 25, 1976 in Winterland, San Francisco, at the concert featured in the 1978 documentary 'The Last Waltz.'mptvimages.com
Diego A. Manrique

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Robbie Robertson, who died in Los Angeles Wednesday at the age of 80, lived a full life under the mark of simulation. The son of a Canadian-Indian, he was a teenager when he learned that his real father had been a Jewish hustler who died under mysterious circumstances on an Ontario highway. It was the 1950s and Robertson was swept up in the rock and roll tsunami, achieving remarkable eloquence with the electric guitar. So much so that he was signed by Ronnie Hawkins, a vigorous American rockabilly singer. He was still a minor but Hawkins’ bait proved irresistible: “You won’t make a lot of money, but you’re going to get more action than Frank Sinatra.”

Accompanying the exuberant Hawkins, Robbie and his friends kicked around the B-series of the American circuit, toughening themselves up for all kinds of audiences. By 1963, they had abandoned their mentor and expanded their repertoire to the emerging soul genre. They accompanied bluesman John Paul Hammond in the studio and recorded a few singles on their own, which largely went unnoticed. Until they were, quite literally, touched by the divine hand.

Bob Dylan and The Band at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968.
Bob Dylan and The Band at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1968.Charles Steiner (Getty Images)

In 1965, Bob Dylan was God: he’d broken the conventions of pop lyrics and wanted a return to the noisy rock of his beginnings. He chose Robbie’s group, Levon and the Hawks, as his backing band: they had mastered many styles and didn’t need much in the way of rehearsal But neither Dylan nor his musicians were prepared for what awaited them on their international tours: they were booed by a purist public, who preferred Dylan with an acoustic guitar and harmonica and reacted with demonic automatism to the electric part of the concerts. Today it seems a quaint reaction, but it was unpleasant enough for the leader of The Hawks, drummer Levon Helm, to quit music.

Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson during a 1974 performance in Pembroke Pines, Florida.
Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson during a 1974 performance in Pembroke Pines, Florida.Rick Diamond (Getty Images)

The ordeal over, they retreated to Woodstock, a lost community in the mountains of New York that attracted artists from different disciplines. There, Dylan was determined to change his life but he still had the musical bug: he regularly went to Big Pink, the modest house where his musicians lived. In the basement, with primitive equipment, they recorded ancestral songs and new Dylanesque themes. They would be baptized as The Basement Tapes and were bootlegged before being legally released.

At the same time, they were harvesting material of their own. It might seem an imposture: they immersed themselves in the history and culture of the United States, although they were all Canadian (with the exception of Levon Helm, who returned to the fold after a stint on an oil rig). It was a versatile project, with three top-notch singers (Levon, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko) and two exceptional instrumentalists, keyboardist Garth Hudson and Robertson himself on his piercing guitar.

From left to right: Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, members of The Band, in London in 1971.
From left to right: Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, members of The Band, in London in 1971.Gijsbert Hanekroot (Redferns)

The Band functioned as a purgative for the excesses of the psychedelic era, with special impact on Eric Clapton and other British stars, who were not particularly attentive to the nuances of songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which evoked the misfortunes of a southerner during the Civil War without mentioning slavery. With Robertson’s inexhaustible songwriting inspiration, The Band were prolific for 10 years, during which they time they recorded Planet Waves and toured with Dylan in 1974.

Robbie Robertson talks to Martin Scorsese.
Robbie Robertson talks to Martin Scorsese.Lynn Goldsmith (Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Despite the contributions of professionals such as Allen Toussaint, the group was losing momentum, due to the alcohol and drug excesses of several of its members. Robertson proposed a big farewell, with a concert attended by the great and the good in San Francisco, baptized as The Last Waltz and immortalized by Martin Scorsese. It was supposed to be a mere parenthesis, with The Band reappearing in the future.

This was not the case, at least with the presence of Robbie Robertson. Fascinated by cinema, the guitarist tried his hand as an actor (Carny, 1980) and ended up becoming Scorsese’s right-hand man in musical matters, from Raging Bull to the director’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon. He made no effort to reunite The Band. In fact, he began to release solo albums, such as Robbie Robertson (1987) or Storyville (1991). His former bandmates, in need of the money, got together in 1993 to tour and record three albums that, alas, went unnoticed.

Robbie Robertson in the documentary 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.'
Robbie Robertson in the documentary 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.'

The successive deaths of Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Levon Helm further muddied the waters. Helm had become mortal enemies with Robertson, revealing that he had been acquiring copyrights from his former partners. Perhaps too late, Robbie explained that he was trying to help his ruined friends and see to it that control of The Band’s legacy was not dispersed. He recounted this in a careful autobiography, Testimony and in a bittersweet documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band. He had fallen under the magnetism of Hollywood, and who could reproach him?

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