Martin Scorsese Hosts Robbie Robertson Tribute, With Jackson Browne

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In honor of the late Robbie Robertson, whose “Killers of the Flower Moon” score was his final work, Martin Scorsese hosted a private tribute concert Wednesday in Los Angeles that had guests including Joni Mitchell, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone watching Jackson Browne and other musicians perform Robertson’s songs as well as score excerpts.

The tribute to Robertson — who died on Aug. 9 at age 80 — took place before 200 invited guests at the composer’s longtime recording-studio home, the Village Studios in West L.A. Among those joining Browne as performers were Rocco DeLuca, Citizen Cope, Angela McCluskey, Blake Mills, Jim Keltner and, briefly, Jason Isbell, who has a small role in “Killers.”

Jackson Browne and Jason Isbell at the Robbie Robertson Memorial Concert at The Village Studios on November 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Polk for Variety

Robertson was being doubly celebrated Wednesday night. Simultaneous with the tribute concert, he was being posthumously awarded a 2023 Hollywood Music in Media Award for best score for a feature film for his “Killers” music.

Speaking about the final score composed by Robertson, whose mother was Mohawk and Cayuga and raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, Scorsese said, “I think that for Robbie this was a pinnacle in our collaboration, on this picture, which is dedicated to him. In a way, I think he was destined to score ‘Killers,’ which unfolded in the world of the Native American community, in this case the Osage Nation. It was almost as if Robbie had come home. I think he created one of the most beautiful scores ever written for a film. His music is the beating heart of the picture.” 

Leonardo DiCaprio at the Robbie Robertson Memorial Concert at The Village Studios on November 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Polk for Variety

Though it was a rainy evening in L.A., the vibe inside the walls of the Village Studios was warm and crackling with excitement as studio owner Jeff Greenberg kicked off the event. After offering a brief history of the building, which he noted began as a Masonic Temple in 1920, Greenberg referenced Robertson’s longstanding history with the studio, starting in 1973 when he worked on Bob Dylan’s record “Planet Waves,” leading to Robertson having an office at the studio and working on his music there throughout the years, including the score for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

“Robbie Robertson has been an occupant of the Village and a large part of the magic of the Village for the last 50 years,” Greenberg, who purchased the studio in 1995, said. “I had the privilege of being with Robbie Robertson almost every day in the last 27 or 28 years. Every time I’ve started to write something about Robbie, I can’t stop from tearing up. I had the privilege and the pleasure of knowing a humble and shy and brilliant magician and musician, because he truly did make magic.” 

Becoming choked up for a moment, Greenberg breathed out heavily and lowered his face, before continuing to speak through tears to thank the audience for coming to the studio and being a part of the celebration. 

The approximately 70-minute concert opened with a stripped-down, stirring rendition of the Band’s “Twilight,” composed by Robertson and performed by Rocco DeLuca and Johnny Shepherd as a vocal duet, with DeLuca on guitar. The pair then delivered a haunting rendition of “They Don’t Live Long” from the “Killers of the Flower Moon” soundtrack. Deluca appeared on Robertson’s fifth solo record, 2011’s “How To Become Clairvoyant,” and contributed to the “Killers” score. 

The always colorful Angela McCluskey, wearing pink flowers in her hair, took the stage next and relayed an anecdote about how she initially met Robertson over a decade ago when, out of the blue, he suddenly phoned her while she was overseas in Paris. Having never met Robertson before, she couldn’t believe that he was actually calling her. Incredulous, she said to him, “Why? What? I don’t know Robbie Robertson.” But Robertson told her that he was making a new album and that he casts musicians like actors for his records, as he invited her to Los Angeles to sing on his record. McCluskey said she immediately sat down on the sidewalk after the phone call, thinking, “Did that just fucking happen?” McCluskey added when she went to Los Angeles to sing on “How to Become Clairvoyant,” she absolutely adored Robertson. 

With her husband and Wild Colonials bandmate, film composer Paul Cantelon, on piano, McCluskey sat down to perform the Band’s “Whispering Pines,” co-written by Robertson and Richard Manuel, from the Band’s 1969 self-titled album. With her powerhouse vocals filling the room, McCluskey gave an impassioned, goosebump-inducing performance. Overcome with emotion, McCluskey hung her head forward for a few moments at the end of the song, honoring Robertson.

Up next was the tribute from Scorsese. Wearing a royal blue suit and dark red tie, the legendary filmmaker smiled and waved at the crowd in response to the applause and whistles as he walked on stage. With a black-and-white photo of him and Robertson displayed on the screen behind him, for more than 15 minutes Scorsese spoke with reverence about Robertson and their longstanding friendship and collaboration.

Martin Scorsese at the Robbie Robertson Memorial Concert at The Village Studios on November 15, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Polk for Variety

He talked about “The Last Waltz,” which he said began as a simple plan to document the Band’s final live performance on Thanksgiving in 1976 but evolved for the next two years into “a real movie,” ultimately becoming heralded as one of the best rock concert films in history. “When all was said and done, it was a folie à deux,” Scorese said. “Two individuals came together and did something that on their own they wouldn’t have done… The madness of two.”

Scorsese said that during the two-year period in which they worked on the film, the pair lived together and educated one another about their respective art forms. “We had informal classes,” he said. “Music class for me, film class for him… we really shared what we loved and we learned from each other.” Scorsese said Robertson introduced him to obscure blues, gospel and sacred harp, and Scorsese showed Robertson films by Samuel Fuller, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.

Talking about Robertson’s contributions to his films, Scorsese recounted several of Robertson’s musical suggestions, including Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” in “The Aviator,” Etta James’ “At Last” for the end credits of “Raging Bull” (Scorsese noted that he used a piano version of the song), and “Cry” by Johnny Ray in “Shutter Island.” Scorsese said Robertson also introduced him to more contemporary songs, including the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” which he used in “The Departed.” 

Illustrating Robertson’s ingenuity, Scorsese said when he was looking to find “the sound of silence” for his 2016 film “Silence,” Robertson collected the sounds of cicadas from various places at different times of year, which he mixed together, stretched out and slowed down, creating “something really special, almost like a choir. He got the sound of silence. But it was the sound of the inner silence that he got,” Scorsese noted.

Speaking about Robertson’s gift for storytelling, Scorsese said, “What Robbie said and the way he said it, his voice, the sound of Robbie’s voice — Leo DiCaprio was saying only a couple of weeks ago about it — (it was) a mellifluous sound, the spell it cast, the stories he told that flowed like music. They always had to pay off on a punchline, a great conclusion. He was a storyteller — not a great raconteur, but a real storyteller, much deeper than a raconteur. He held you, for me, with the rhythm of his words and his pauses, and it all became music.”

As to their almost 50-year close friendship, Scorsese said, “We were friends. We were more than that. Confidantes… someone you can confide in. Friendship is private, it’s trust, sometimes it’s forgiveness, and it’s love, but sometimes silence suffices. Silence can be enough.” 

Scorsese wrapped up his tribute to Robertson with an anecdote about his plan to use the Ink Spots’ song “We Three” in “Raging Bull,” until Robertson encouraged him to replace it with “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell The Trees)” instead. Scorsese then said some of the song’s lyrics aloud: “Why do you whisper green grass? Why tell the trees what ain’t so? Whispering grass the trees don’t have to know. Why tell them all the old things? They’re buried under the snow. Whispering grass, don’t tell the trees ’cause the trees don’t need to know.” 

Finishing on a poignant note, Scorsese said, “And now I understand. The trees don’t need to know.”

Met with a standing ovation, Scorsese’s speech set the stage beautifully for conductor Mark Graham to lead the Killers Score Orchestra through a captivating medley of Robertson’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” score, as scenes from the film played on screens at the side of the stage.

Citizen Cope took the stage next for a beautiful delivery of the Robertson-penned “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” from the Band’s 1969 self-titled album. He was joined on stage by soulful vocalist Angelyna Martinez, ebullient bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, renowned guitarist Blake Mills and legendary drummer Jim Keltner, plus Fred Yonnet (who played on “The Irishman” soundtrack) gorgeously wailing away on harmonica. 

Jackson Browne next performed a stunning version of “Caledonia Mission,” written by Robertson for the Band’s 1968 debut record “Music From Big Pink,” with Wilkenfeld, Mills and Keltner. He then invited Jason Isbell, McCluskey and Martinez on stage for a rousing rendition of the evening’s last song, “The Weight,” also written by Robertson for the Band’s debut record.

“This is a song that everybody gets to play one time or another because everybody knows it and no one has to sing it exactly like the record. This is one of those songs that play themselves,” Browne said, before launching into a version of the song in which the vocalists traded off verses, with Isbell being met with screams and cheers as soon as he started to sing. 

With the entire audience singing along, DiCaprio bobbing his head back and forth in his seat and a smiling Mitchell tapping her cane on the floor to the beat, the life-affirming performance proved a perfect cap for a magical and befitting tribute to the life and music of a musician and composer whose loss still registers as not quite real to many of the friends and cohorts who filled the studio.

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