TORONTO — Robbie Robertson has spent more than half a century as one of Canada’s most active musicians, earning him the privilege to take a load off.
But with a documentary about his career opening the Toronto International Film Festival tonight, he says that’s definitely not happening.
In fact, the 76-year-old guitarist and film composer can rattle off an epic list of everything he’s working on right now.
He recently finished a score for Martin Scorsese’s gangster saga “The Irishman” set for release this year, his new album “Sinematic” comes out later this month and he’s working on a second memoir that picks up where his 2016 book “Testimony” left off.
On top of that, he’ll walk down the red carpet for the premiere of “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band,” a loving tribute to the hurdles and victories Robertson and his bandmates endured as they left their mark on music history. The film is executive produced by longtime friend Scorsese, who immortalized the Band in the 1978 concert film “The Last Waltz.”
“You would think during a period like this, in this stage of my journey, I would be cruising a little bit and kicking back with a lemonade,” Robertson says with a chuckle while sitting in a Toronto hotel room.
“I’m just not into that. I have to feel like I’m growing, learning and I’m still making discoveries.”
Perhaps Robertson’s thrill for new creative adventures draws from a life of unbelievable twists and turns. He started his music career as a teenager when rockabilly rebel Ronnie Hawkins enlisted him for his travelling band in the early 1960s. Later he defected with his bandmates to Bob Dylan’s tour where they dodged irritated crowds who hadn’t warmed to the acoustic folk singer’s new electric phase.
“Once Were Brothers” recounts those unforgettable moments, which eventually led to the formation of the Band, known for its influential songs that include “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Fellow rock luminaries Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison offer insight on the story from their vantage point.
The movie arrives at TIFF during what’s been a vibrant year for movies about rock legends.
In the multiplexes, the story of Queen told in “Bohemian Rhapsody” racked up major box-office receipts and won Rami Malek a best actor Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury. And Taron Egerton was praised for playing Elton John in “Rocketman.” There were also a few imaginative spins on music history with “Yesterday” reflecting on an alternate universe where the Beatles didn’t exist, and “Blinded by the Light” finding inspiration in a tale of a Pakistani teenager growing up in 1980’s London, England set to the music of Springsteen.
At this year’s TIFF, which runs until Sept. 15, the trend continues. In addition to Robertson’s doc, there’s “Western Stars,” a film co-directed by Springsteen focused on the creation of his most recent album. Modern folk rock act the Lumineers debut “III,” which they dub a “visual manifestation” of their third full-length album.
Robertson has reflected on the Band many times before, so when a Canadian production company approached him about making a feature documentary, he wanted a filmmaker who would offer a fresh perspective.
Among the contenders was Daniel Roher, a 24-year-old newcomer whose resume was stacked with memorable short films, but who hadn’t proven himself in the full-length feature world. The Toronto-based director was an eager admirer of the Band, and had already read Robertson’s memoir front to back, which worked in his favour when Robertson selected him to oversee the project.
He was struck by Roher’s enthusiasm and their early interactions reminded him of his own work ethic, Robertson says.
“A good part of it was that feeling inside that I’m going to take a shot — let’s see what the kid’s made of,” he adds.
“I liked the idea of this raw talent.”
Roher, now 26, has been thrust into a show business world that he couldn’t have possibly imagined a few years ago.
Beyond its subjects, his film is already a piece of TIFF trivia history. It’s the first Canadian documentary to open the festival since its creation in 1976.
Robertson is chuffed that “Once Were Brothers” carries this claim to fame, and he’s just as delighted that it will premiere just a short walk from the once-bustling Yonge Street music scene where he started.
“After all these years, I’ve only gone a few blocks,” he says with a smirk.
Robertson is already onto his next film with Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about members of the Osage Nation who discover oil in 1920s Oklahoma and start turning up dead shortly afterwards, leading the newly created Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the case.
He’s also jotting down ideas for another new album.
But despite the flurry of new work on his plate, Robertson isn’t saying farewell to the legacy of the Band either.
At least two projects are in early script stages based on his memoir. One would be a potential dramatic film, while the other is structured as a TV series. Robertson said he doesn’t favour one storytelling approach over the other.
“If the right people do that right thing, magic happens,” he says.
“It comes down to the talent, just about every time.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press