When Robbie Robertson agreed to watch a rough cut of Ladder 49 after being queried about writing a song for the film’s climactic scene, he didn’t plan on taking the job. Although he’s composed several scores for his friend Martin Scorsese, Robertson has little interest in the field of movie music overall, and he’s turned down many such projects over the years. What’s more, he’d never written a song expressly for a movie. But as he watched Ladder 49, Robertson found himself captivated by this inside look at a group of Baltimore firefighters. “It was so well done, and so moving,” he says, “that, at the end of the movie, I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t give this a shot, then I’m just a jerk.’ It’s so soulful, the way this story is told, and so moving, that I told them, ‘Listen, I’ll see if I can think of anything; I don’t know.’ Because this is almost a setup to do something that could be corny or maudlin. There were 90 ways that this doesn’t work, and a few that you may be able to get by with. So I sat down and something started to come to me, and I thought, ‘This has a connection to it, but it’s not right on the nose.’”
“Shine Your Light,” the song he came up with, seems cut from the same rich fabric as Robertson’s classic work with The Band—visionary songs like “The Weight,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “It Makes No Difference,” which he seemed to snatch whole from the American collective unconscious. “Shine Your Light,” which is both an anthem and a hymn, leaves a similar impression.
“It was very odd,” Ladder 49 director Jay Russell says of the experience of sitting in Robertson’s studio while he played the freshly written song on the piano for the filmmaker. “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! This is crazy – it’s surreal.’ The thing that’s always struck me about Robbie’s work is that he writes songs that you feel like you’ve heard all your life, and that’s the way I felt about this song—it just felt timeless.”
“Shine Your Light” has all the earmarks of another bona fide classic from one of rock’s greatest writers, but Robertson isn’t ready to draw that conclusion just yet. “All I know is I like it,” he says, “and that’s all that matters to me.”