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The memorial, held at Robertson’s longtime Los Angeles studio home The Village, included a moving tribute from director Martin Scorsese and performances of Robertson’s music from Jackson Browne, Citizen Cope, Angela McCluskey and others.
Scorsese and Robertson first met while making The Band’s legendary concert film The Last Waltz. “I guess when all is said and done it was a kind of folie à deux,” said Scorsese in his eulogy. “That is, two individuals came together and did something that on their own they wouldn’t have done.”
Initially planned as simply a live recording of the group’s 1976 farewell concert, Scorsese and Robertson spent two years working on the film together. “During those two years Robbie stayed in the house, we had informal classes,” Scorsese remembered. “Music class for me, film class for him. He introduced me to obscure blues music, gospel, and the Sacred Harp Singers. I introduced him to Sam Fuller movies, Pasolini’s Accattone, Visconti… We really shared what we loved.”
The pair continued to collaborate on films including 1980’s Raging Bull, 1995’s Casino and 2016’s Silence. Scorsese recalled Robertson sending him four CDs full of musical suggestions for 2006’s The Departed. The opening track was Dropkick Murphy’s ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’, which Scorsese ended up using repeatedly in the film.
Most recently, Robertson composed the music for Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. A medley from the score was performed at the memorial by an orchestra conducted by Mark Graham. Other musical performances included Angela McCluskey singing ‘Whispering Pines’, Jackson Browne covering The Band’s ‘Caledonia Mission’ and a singalong finale of ‘The Weight’ featuring Browne, Jason Isbell, Blake Mills and Tal Wilkenfeld.
Welcoming guests to the event, The Village Studios owner Jeff Greenberg recalled the effect Robertson could have on the band who came to record while he was around.
“Everybody who ever came here wanted to go so hi to Robbie,” he said. “‘Robbie, so-and-so’s here, they want to see you.’ ‘Sorry, tell them I’m busy.’ Occasionally he would bestow his presence on people, like Elton John, Leon Russell or U2. One little group was here, I couldn’t believe, he went down and say hi to Wolfmother. It was like they’d been kissed on the forehead by God. They’re still glowing.”
In a recent interview with NME, Scoresese looked back on his five decade friendship with Robertson.
“We knew each other for 50 years,” he said, “and so his last work is this music in the film. And he was indigenous too. I think his mother was from the Mohawk Nation, up in First Nations in Canada. And so it was a very special project for Rob to do.”
He added: “Every aspect of this film – the Osage culture, the baby namings, the funerals, the wedding, all these things were something I wanted to recreate. So we learn about these cultures and learn more about ourselves.”
Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell and Bill Clinton were among those to pay tribute to Robertson when he passed, with Bob Dylan also honouring his “life-long friend“.