Robbie Robertson is one of rock’s greatest storytellers, and on a new track, he sets his sights on his own remarkable history. “Once Were Brothers,” which PEOPLE exclusively premieres today, is a poignant look back at his musical brethren in the Band — the hugely influential group whose debut, Music from Big Pink, inspired a sea change in popular music upon its release in 1968, and pointed the way for untold Americana acts to come.
The Band famously worked shoulder to shoulder in a dingy basement in upstate New York, creating their own musical vocabulary from elements of blues, country, gospel, rock, and classical. But despite this intimacy, their later years were marked by dissension, addiction, and unhappiness. Of the five members, only Robertson and Garth Hudson survive. (Richard Manuel died in 1986, Rick Danko in 1999, and Levon Helm in 2012.)
“When the light goes out and you can’t go on / You miss your brothers, but now they’re gone,” Robertson sings on the track, which features appearances by Nairobi native J.S. Ondara and singer/songwriter Citizen Cope. The chorus is a bittersweet farewell to his fallen bandmates and the bond they all shared. “Once were brothers, brothers no more / We lost our connection after the war / There’ll be no revival, there’ll be no encore / Once were brothers, brothers no more.”
“There is war and conflict involved,” Robertson, 76, says of the deeply personal song. “Writing it hurt inside sometimes, but those experiences can be rewarding in the emotional outcome. It hurt but I loved it.”
The track is featured in a new documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, which premieres Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Daniel Roher and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the film brings Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, to life with a vivid blend of rare archival footage, photography, music, and interviews with fellow artists including Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel and Scorsese — a frequent collaborator. The Oscar-winning filmmaker was on hand to capture the Band’s legendary 1976 farewell concert, released two years later as The Last Waltz. After teaming up for 10 more projects, Scorsese most recently commissioned Robertson to pen the score for his latest film, The Irishman.
Robertson’s longtime passion for film (and noir) is clear in the title of his upcoming album, Sinematic. The 13-track collection, his first set of originals since 2011’s introspective collaboration with Eric Clapton, has its genesis in Robertson’s film work. “I was working on music for The Irishman and working on the documentary, and these things were bleeding into each other,” he says in a statement. “I could see a path. Ideas for songs about haunting and violent and beautiful things were swirling together like a movie. You follow that sound and it all starts to take shape right in front of your ears. At some point, I started referring to it as ‘Peckinpah Rock’, a nod to Sam Peckinpah, the late director of such violent Westerns as The Wild Bunch.”
To further the visual effect, Robertson created a series of paintings and images for each song, ranging from abstract impressionism to distorted photo-realism. These will be included in the liner notes for Sinematic, which is due out Sept. 20. A limited Deluxe Edition, which includes a CD, two 180-gram vinyl LPs and a 36-page hardcover book, will follow on Oct. 25.