One last chat with Robbie Robertson about ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

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

Two weeks after our conversation, I was quickly flipping through a transcript of it, hurriedly, to select quotes for Robertson’s obituary. Although he had been suffering from serious health problems, his death on August 6 was completely unexpected, by all indications. It had never occurred to anyone that my talk with him would be his last interview; We had plans to pick up the conversation ourselves and ended on a cheerful note of “to be continued.” Robertson had plans to spend the next few years taking on the task of somehow documenting his nearly 50-year association with Scorsese. Now it may be up to us to go back and evaluate how close and unusual their working relationship was.

But first, it’s worth taking a deep breath to take in the strange magic of Robertson’s score for “Killers of the Flower Moon” and how, like much of his groundbreaking work on and off screen, it feels like music. that has emerged directly from the earth and is felt like the music of the spheres.

Almost whenever Robertson spoke, he did so in a tone that seemed older and more experienced than anyone alive, and at the same time conveyed an enthusiasm that bordered on the positively youthful. Although he admitted to being tired that day we spoke in late July, his enthusiasm was evident throughout, especially when he spoke of his long association with Scorsese, as if he were a child he couldn’t wait to see. tell him. about his new best friend, instead of someone summarizing a legacy for the thousandth time.

“I mean, we ourselves are amazed that our brotherhood survived it all,” Robertson said. “You know, we’ve been there. We’ve been through that. We’ve been back and forth. Our story is a journey. … I am very proud of our friendship and our work. It has been just a gift in life. And at the same time, I didn’t have to just do what he does. I can also do what I do with other people. So yeah, I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity.”

And returning to the moment, he said: “And now Marty and I are 80 years old and we are going to make a western. “We are going to make a film about the Indians, in our own way.”

You could feel his smile through the phone. “Whenever you embark on a project, you want to shoot high and do a really good job. But on something like this, where your soul is from Indian country, for me it comes down to: You couldn’t have written this. You couldn’t have invented something like this. This is so magical.”

What Robertson was referring to there (the fortuitous, almost too good to be true part) is the fact that her mother was Native American, and has long and proudly embraced it as part of her heritage. Although he is one of Canada’s favorite sons, what is less known is that his mother frequently took him to the Six Nations Indian Reserve while he was growing up. Much later in his life, he would have the opportunity to visit reserves of his own volition; More recently, he spent time in Oklahoma with the Osage people in some of the final weeks that Scorsese was filming “Killers,” absorbing moods and ideas for his eventual score.

I reminded Robertson that the first time he and I spoke was to a 1987 Los Angeles Times story which explored how a deeper dive into his native heritage influenced the music of his self-titled debut solo album that came out that year. At the time he had just returned from recording videos for the songs “Showdown at Big Sky” and “Fallen Angel” on a reservation in New Mexico, and he said in our 1987 chat: “It’s one of the highlights of my life, the latter. Week with the Indians. It just makes everything seem so petty. The people here are running in circles going nowhere, and those people have been doing the same thing for a thousand years, and it’s so moving and so pure. He balance That’s what’s so extraordinary. These people simply see what is special, and what is not special they ignore, pray about it, and wish for it to be better.”

Explaining how those childhood experiences impacted him last July, he said: “Obviously for me it starts at the beginning. And when music appears in my life, when that button is pressed, he says, ‘This is the direction you’re going to go.’” He spoke of “gathering images in your head of this music, in the Six Nations, it is played while I am sitting there and my relatives are sitting with their instruments, singing and breathing. A guy would start a beat and then someone would start singing a melody, and it was just haunting. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what you do on the reservation?’ Because I lived between Toronto and the Six Nations Indian Reserve, back and forth, so I’m learning the thousands of things they do there that they don’t do in the city. And that feeling of the music next to you like that, humming and humming and the rhythm of that feeling, all of that getting under your skin, goes to that place and lives there forever. That’s what we just discovered. It’s still there and didn’t move. You “It can move, but it doesn’t.”

And yet, when it came time to score “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Robertson said he found himself thinking that “I didn’t want to do any stereotypical Indian music, of course… or Indian music from old movies. There will be none of that.” His first impulse was to build “a swarm of guitars: the sounds, the textures and the rhythmic sensations, all as if flooding around each other. Of course, you also start with a swarm of ideas; you’re just trying anything to find out what might be magical. You know, I heard peyote hymns, and drum tones and the rustle of skin and all those textures of bells and snakes and rattles. “All of this, when it all starts to come together in its own music and these noises, it feels good, it feels fresh, and it feels timeless.”

It also feels blues. Like the script, the music of Robertson’s “Killers” is not completely married to the point of view of either the native culture or the interloping white culture. (And it’s certainly not period-specific.) Their masterful blend of sounds takes elements you might associate more with one or another of these conflicting forces and makes it all add up to the feeling of a bad moon rising. It’s frequently sinister, to be sure, but in a propulsive way that takes you intriguingly forward through a three-and-a-half-hour runtime that relies heavily on Robertson’s rumors to set a pace and a path. through the darkness.

However, as to where the balance is, if there is any, Robertson said that not everything in the score needed to refer to that essential spirit. “There are some signs that I did on the streets and things that I really like that fit into the scenes correctly as they should,” he said. “But when the music settles in and when I really feel what this film is for me, that really falls on the side of something that has an Indian soul.”

Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson attend the “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson And The Band” after-party during TIFF 2019 on September 5, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)
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The score for “Killers of the Flower Moon” included a very different assignment than Robertson did on his last project with Scorsese, “The Irishman,” obviously, and that was very different from his duties on projects dating back to “The Irishman.” ”. The King of Comedy” and “The Color of Money.” His title changed across Scorsese’s projects, sometimes reflecting whether he acted more as an external song curator or as a composer. But one thing remains the same:

“Marty usually starts with the idea 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, movie music is movie music! And it is something that is all-encompassing in many ways.” But he certainly knew what his collaborator meant: although Scorsese has made films with traditional music, those have actually been the atypical ones. “In many ways, there are is a line in the sand that says: ‘No. I don’t go there. I don’t do it that way. I don’t follow this by those rules.’”

Aside from the ongoing venture, we discussed what other projects Robertson might have up his sleeve and whether any of them might draw on the kind of historical documentation he had done with his memoir, “Testimony,” which ended with the Band’s dissolution. almost 50 years ago, leaving much more to cover, or the documentary “Once Were Brothers,” also limited in scope compared to his entire career.

He described himself as engaging in “organizational work, and that tells you where it belongs and what you should do with that material…whether it’s outtakes of film music or outtakes of songs, or whether it’s works of art.” or writings or whatever.” – all these possibilities. I have a lot of things lying around that need to be organized. And then I’ll do that and see where these things take me.” He asked out loud, “Do I do a project that’s really a journey into the music and movies I’ve made with Marty? That whole arc, and going through all the stories, and just taking you to a place that’s not like what everyone else is doing, and on top of that, also our personal friendship.” More specifically, he said that he was “immersed in writing the next volume of my memoirs. And I have a lot of paintings and stuff. People also don’t know much about some of the other things I do, which just requires a lot of organizational work. And that’s what I do, you know? Of course, I want to do everything I can.”

Implicit in that last statement was the knowledge that not everything can be done… that there may be a ticking clock that prevents dozens of possible projects from being achieved. There was a lot of archival material to consider, but also a lot to create from scratch, when there might be a new call from Scorsese or the push to make a new solo album after 2019’s “Sinematic.”

We delve even deeper into the music of “Killers” and the quick schedule Scorsese put on it so he could have a “jukebox” full of material ready while he began editing the film. However, there was still much more to discuss. Talking for almost an hour had barely scratched the surface of what there was to discuss about the working methodology and mysteries of “Flowers,” much less the arc of a career, with and without his collaborating friend. Robertson was feeling a little tired and mentioned his recovery from health problems that had forced other interviews to be postponed over the summer. Plans were made to meet again soon to talk more. I mentioned how much I still wanted to get into other areas with him. “Well, you will!” -he swore.

I wasn’t sure to what extent, at the beginning of the conversation, Robertson had registered my passing reference to our first talk several decades earlier, when he and I first discussed his Native heritage and how it was impacting his art. I was a fool to think he would have escaped her. As we concluded our call, Robertson touched me by saying, “Well, Chris, back in 1987, when we started this journey.”

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

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