For new movie "Ladder 49," about a group of Baltimore firefighters, Robertson penned "Shine Your Light," as a tribute and in celebration of these everyday heroes. It's a stunning track that recalls the enduring material of "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band," both landmark albums from the songwriter's former group. Part anthem and part gospel hymn, "Shine Your Light" plays in its entirety over the film's dramatic culminating scene; it's the only sound that's heard. Robertson also composed an orchestral adagio for the final credits. The soundtrack will be released September 28 on Hollywood Records. The Touchstone Pictures/Beacon Pictures film, which was directed by Jay Russell ("Tuck Everlasting," "My Dog Skip") and stars John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, opens nationwide on October 1, 2004.
Determined to enlist "one of the great songwriters" to pen an original song for the crucial scene, Russell (a huge fan of The Band) came up with a list of what he calls "dream choices," and Robertson's name was at the very top. "When it comes to themes of life, death and Americana," Russell asserts, "you can count the songwriters who can capture that on one hand, Bob Dylan being one and Robbie Robertson being another. So we only went to one person on the list, and that was Robbie."
Robertson agreed to view a rough cut of the film, but he was skeptical going in. "Initially I went into this thinking, `This is probably something I'm not going to want to do,'" he recalls. "I do it with Marty (Scorsese) because it's always an interesting challenge and he's a dear friend. But these other things that come along, most of the time I'm not really that interested."
Robertson's attitude changed after he saw "Ladder 49." "This movie just had the right taste factor to me," he says. "It takes you into a different world -- into the firefighters' club. I didn't know anything about this club. I didn't know how these things work with these people. This movie is paying tribute, and paying such beautiful respect, to these guys who go out every day and risk their lives for the rest of us, in some of the most horrendous situations imaginable. It made it feel like this is an important statement, and not in any kind of pretentious way at all."
Inspired by the experience of seeing "Ladder 49," Robertson soon came up with an idea for the song. Once he had it roughed out, he invited Russell over to his studio and played it for the director on the piano. Afterward, Russell recalls, "I just sat there thinking, 'I'm very moved by this song; I think it's beautifully poetic,' and it was exactly what I was looking for. And secondly I'm thinking, 'Robbie Robertson just wrote a song for me!' It was a unique experience for me, both as a filmmaker and as a person, a very special moment."
Robertson recorded "Shine Your Light" with a hand-picked crew: Abe Laboriel Jr. (who drums for Paul McCartney), orchestrator David Campbell (who composed the string arrangements for "Sea Change" by his son, Beck) and multi-instrumentalist John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Michelle Branch), who would co-produce as well as playing bass, dulcimer and guitar. Campbell also orchestrated the end title theme, which Robertson titled "Reflection/Adagio." Robertson handled the lead vocals, piano and other keyboards and lead guitar. Chris Lord Alge mixed both pieces.
In order to complete the project, Robertson had to clear a slot in a busy schedule that finds him developing a nontraditional Broadway musical focused on Native American music and dance, putting together a definitive box set on the Band and overseeing the assembly of a much-belated soundtrack album for the Scorsese classic "Raging Bull." "I have many other things on my plate right now," Robertson acknowledges. "But when these things come along you make time, because they call out to you."
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