It’s safe to say that Robbie Robertson was feeling The Weight on Thursday during the opening day of the Toronto International Film Festival. Not only was the Toronto-born rock legend back at home to promote Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (the film based on his 2016 book Testimony), but the Crave documentary also made history by becoming the first Canadian documentary to open TIFF, ever.
“[It’s] pretty cool,” Robertson said during a press conference at the Bell Lightbox. “I can’t imagine a bigger complement than opening the Toronto International Film Festival with a young Torontonian director here (Daniel Roher). It doesn’t get better.”
Yet somehow it did. At the end of the conference, mayor John Tory stepped up to present Robertson with a surprise: a key to the city. “Am I under arrest?” Robertson joked as he joined the mayor in front of the stage.
“We are the most diverse city in the world—it’s a point of great pride for us. One thing that can often unify people who can’t speak to each other in the same language is music and art and film and dance,” Tory said. “So what I’ve chosen to do, in having the privilege of presenting these keys to the city, is to choose people who have been pioneers and who have really set an example and have perhaps done it at a time when it’s a struggle to do so. It’s still a struggle to achieve global pre-eminence as an artist from a smaller country like Canada, and you did that in a time that was even tougher than it is today.”
As 26-year-old director Roher highlights in Once Were Brothers, Robertson’s ground-breaking guitar skills and soulful songs didn’t just change the game in Canada, but helped to bring several musical genres together and inspire A-list musicians on a global scale like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen.
The film follows Robertson’s journey as a 15-year-old songwriter to becoming one of five members of The Band, a rock roots group that started out as The Hawks and ended their legacy with the 1978 Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz. Since then the group has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 they received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys.
Throughout it all the members dealt with typical rock band trappings—drugs, jealousy, a rivalry between Robertson and drummer Levon Helm, and going from being booed on stage to earning international success—all of which ultimately culminated in the “brothers” going their own ways. Although they always planned to reunite at some point, sadly they never did.
“You worked at the CNE. This is proof positive—that in itself qualifies you as a very genuine Torontonian,” Tory joked before actually presenting Robertson with the key, which according to Tory opens . . . well even he doesn’t know.
‘If I take this to the Toronto bank and make a withdrawal…” Robertson joked back before turning serious. “I’m really touched by this. It’s a complete surprise. Thank you very, very much. This is my hood. And now I’ve got the key.”
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band streams on Crave later this year.
The 44th Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5-15, 2019.