May 18, 2024

When I spoke with Robbie Robertson over the phone in the last week of July, it was at what everyone might have expected would be the beginning of a great victory lap for the musician. His work with the Band in the late ‘60s through mid-‘70s had been properly commemorated, through a memoir and documentary that covered those crucial years. But the film work that had consumed so much of his attention in the decades since, almost all of it as a close collaborator with, and close friend, to Martin Scorsese? There hadn’t really been a proper nexus point to fully celebrate and explore that. And the impending release of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which had already premiered to considerable acclaim in Cannes, looked to provide it.

Two weeks after our conversation, I was quickly plumming through a transcript of it, in haste, to pick out quotes for Robertson’s obituary. Even though he had been suffering with serious health issues, his death Aug. 6 was wholly unanticipated, from all accounts. It hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind that my chat with him would be his last interview; we had plans to pick up the conversation ourselves, and ended on a cheery “to be continued” note. Robertson had plans to spend the coming years taking up the task of documenting his nearly 50-year association with Scorsese, in some form. Now it may be up to us to go back and take a measure of just how tight and unusual their working relationship was.

But first, it’s worth taking an extended breath to take in the strange magic of Robertson’s score for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and how, like so much of his ground-breaking work on- or off-screen, it feels like music that has emerged right out of the earth and feels like the music of the spheres.

Almost any time Robertson spoke, it was with a tone that seemed older and more seasoned than anyone alive and, at the same time, conveyed an enthusiasm that bordered on the positively boyish. Even though he admitted to being tired that day we spoke in late July, his zeal came through at every moment — most of all when he spoke about his long association with Scorsese, as if he was a kid who couldn’t wait to tell you about his new BFF, rather than somebody summing up a legacy for the thousandth time.

“I mean, we’re in awe ourselves that our brotherhood has outlasted everything,” Robertson said. “You know, we’ve been there. We’ve been through it. We’ve been there and back. Our story is a trip. … I am so proud of our friendship and our work. It’s been just a gift in life. And at the same time, I didn’t have to just do what he does. I get to do what I do with other people, too. So, yeah, I am unbelievably grateful for this opportunity.”

And, bringing it back to the moment, he said: “And now Marty and I are both 80 years old, and we’re getting to do a Western. We’re getting to do a movie about Indians, in our own way.”

You could sense his smile coming through the telephone. “Whenever you’re going into a project, you want to shoot high, and you want to do some really good work. But on something like this, where its soul is from Indian country, for me it comes down to: You couldn’t have written this. You couldn’t have made something like this up. This is so magical.”

What Robertson was alluding to there — the serendipitous, almost too-good-to-be-true part — is the fact that his mother was Native American, and he has long and proudly embraced that as part of his heritage. Although he is one of Canada’s favorite sons, lessder known is that his mother would frequently take him to the Six Nations Indian Reserve as he was growing up. Much later in life, he would have occasion to visit reservations his own accord — most recently, spending time in Oklahoma with the Osage people in some of the final weeks that Scorsese was shooting “Killers” absorbing moods and ideas for his eventual score.

I reminded Robertson that the first time he and I ever spoke, it was for a 1987 Los Angeles Times story that explored how taking a deeper dive into his Native heritage influenced the music of his self-titled debut solo album that came out that year.  He had just come back at the time from shooting videos for the songs “Showdown at Big Sky” and “Fallen Angel” at a New Mexico reservation, and said in our 1987 talk, “It’s one of the highlights of my life, this last week with the Indians. It just makes everything seem so petty. People here are running around in circles and going nowhere, and those people have been doing the same thing for a thousand years — and it’s so soulful and it’s so pure. The balance is what’s so extraordinary. These people just see what’s special, and what’s not special they ignore and pray for and wish it better.”

Expounding upon how those childhood experiences impacted him this past July, he said, “Obviously for me it starts at the very beginning. And when music comes along in my life, when that button gets pushed, it says, ‘This is a direction that you’re gonna go in.’” He spoke of “gathering pictures in your head of this music, at Six Nations, being played while I’m sitting there and my relatives are all sitting around with their instruments and singing and breathing. One guy would start a rhythm and then somebody would start singing a melody to that, and it was just haunting. And I thought, ‘Whoa, this is what you do on the reservation?’ Because I was living between Toronto and the Six Nations Indian Reserve, back and forth, so I’m just learning all of the thousands of things that they do there that they don’t do in the city. And that feeling of the music beside you like that, humming and droning and the groove of the feel of it — all of that getting under your skin — it goes to that place, and it lives there forever. That’s what we just found out. It’s still there, and it didn’t move. You can move, but it don’t.”

And yet, when it came time to do the “Killers of the Flower Moon” score, Robertson said he found himself thinking that he didn’t “want to do any stereotypical Indian music, for sure… or old-movie Indian music. There will be none of that.” His first impulse was to build “a swarm of guitars — the sounds and textures and rhythmic feels, all just kind of swamping around one another. Of course you start out with a swarm of ideas, too; you’re just trying anything to figure what could be magical. You know, I listened to peyote hymns, and drum tonalities and the rubbing of skins and all these textures of bells and snakes and rattles. All this stuff, when it all starts to come together in its own music and these rumblings, it feels good, and it feels fresh, and it feels timeless.”

It also feels bluesy. Just as with the script, Robertson’s “Killers” music is not completely married to the point of view either of the Native culture or of the interloping white culture. (And it’s certainly not period-specific.) His masterful mixture of sounds takes elements you might associate more with one or the other of these conflicting forces and makes it all add up to the feeling of a bad moon rising. It’s frequently ominous, to be sure, but in a propulsive way that carries you ever intriguingly forward through a three-and-a-half-hour running time that relies heavily on Robertson’s rumblings to set a pace and a way through the darkness.

As for where the balance lies, though, if there is one, Robertson said that not everything in the score needed to hark back to that essential spirit. “There are some of the cues that I did out in the streets and things that I really like that fit the scenes properly like they should,” he said. “But when the music settles in and when it really feels like what this movie is to me, that really does stay over on the side of something that has an Indian soul.”

Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson attend “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band” After Party during TIFF 2019 on September 05, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)
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The music for “Killers of the Flower Moon” involved a very different brief than what Robertson did on his last project with Scorsese, “The Irishman,” obviously, and that was very different from his duties on projects going all the way back to “The King of Comedy” and “The Color of Money.” His title would change on Scorsese projects, sometimes reflecting whether he acted more as a curator of outside songs or a scorer. But one thing remained the same:

“Marty usually starts from a place of ‘Well, it shouldn’t sound like movie music.’” Something about that makes Robertson laugh. “If you say it shouldn’t sound like movie music, music in a movie is movie music! And it’s kind of all-encompassing in many ways.” But he certainly knew what his collaborator meant — even though Scorsese has done movies with traditional scores, those have been the outliers, really. “In many ways, there is a line in the sand that says, ‘Nope. I don’t go there. I don’t do it that way. I don’t play this by those rules.’”

Apart from the going concern, we discussed what other projects Robertson might have up his sleeve and whether any of them might build on the sort of historical documentation he’d done with his memoir, “Testimony” — which ended with the breakup of the Band nearly 50 years ago, leaving a lot more to cover — or the “Once Were Brothers” documentary, also limited in scope compared to the totality of his career.

He described himself as being involved in “organizational work, and it tells you then where it belongs and what you should do with that material … whether it’s outtakes of movie music or whether it’s outtakes of songs, or whether it’s art pieces or writings or whatever — all of these possibilities. I have a lot of stuff that’s lying around that needs to be organized. And so I’m gonna do that and I’m gonna see where these things lead me.” He asked aloud: “Do I do a project that is really a journey into the music and movies that I’ve done with Marty? That whole arc, and going through all the stories, and just taking you into a place that’s unlike what anybody else does — and besides that, our personal friendship, as well.” More concretely, he said he was  “deep in writing the next volume of my memoir. And I’ve got a lot of paintings and stuff. People don’t know too much about some of the other things that I do, too, that just needs a lot of organizational work. And so that’s what I do, you know? Of course, I want to do as much of it as I can.”

Implicit in that last statement was the knowledge that not everything can be done … that there may be a clock that keeps dozens of possible projects from all being achieved. There was so much archival material to be considered but also so much still to be created from scratch, when there might be a fresh call from Scorsese or the impulse to do a new solo album to follow 2019’s “Sinematic.”

We got deeper still into the music of “Killers” and the quick timetable Scorsese put him on so that he could have a “jukebox” full of material ready as he went into editing the film. Yet there was still so much more to be discussed, even just about “Flowers”… let alone the arc of a career, in tandem with the director or on record. It was too much to do much more than just scratch the surface. Robertson was feeling a bit weary, mentioning his ongoing recovery from health problems that had forced the postponement of other interviews during the summer. Plans were made to reconvene shortly to talk more. I mentioned how badly I still wanted to get into other subjects with him. “Well, you will!” he vowed.

I wasn’t sure how much, at the beginning of the conversation, Robertson had registered my passing reference to our first talk several decades back, when he and I first discussed his Native heritage and how it was then freshly impacting his art. I was foolish to think it might have gotten past him. Wrapping up our call, Robertson moved me by saying, “Well, here’s to 1987, Chris, when we started this ride.”

My own toast, then: Here’s to picking it up somewhere down the crazy river.

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