By Linc Leifeste | October 7, 2013
Director: Jacob Hatley
Levon Helm. The heart and Southern soul of, in my book, the greatest American rock and roll band ever: The Band. The name says it all. “Wait, they’re not an American band,” you say. “Everyone in the band but Levon was Canadian.” That’s how American Levon was, though. With his soulful Arkansas-born Southern roots, Levon was American enough to nationalize the Band. Director Jacob Hatley’s documentary, Ain’t in It for My Health, captures Levon in has late-career resurgence, shortly after his Grammy-winning album Dirt Farmer, his first solo studio album since 1982. Despite containing a segment with Barney Hoskyns narrating a short history of the Band and Levon over a slideshow of vintage photographs, this is not a good primer on Helm and the Band for the uninitiated. But for established fans of Helm, those of us who fell in love with his drumming and his soulful vocal delivery, this is a priceless chance to spend an intimate hour and a half with a man that it’s still hard to believe is gone. And truth be told, that’s probably the hardest part about watching this documentary that so gracefully captures an older, mortality-laden Helm, the reminder of what was lost when Levon slipped this mortal coil on April 19, 2012.
This is not a performance documentary. While thankfully there are moments of live Levon, both classic and modern, mostly Hatley’s film reveals captured moments from the three years he spent filming Helm after initially working with him on a music video. One thing led to another and soon he was staying in a house located near Helm’s Woodstock farm and filming documentary footage. When he ran out of funds, Helm invited him to move into his house and continue filming. Despite that, you never get the sense that Helm opened up completely. It’s clear there are limits to what he will talk about, to how much he will reveal. But this Helm is a far cry from the reserved member of the Band interviewed by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz. This is clearly a man who carries a lot of bitterness towards Robbie Robertson and the record business about the way things worked out for his legendary band. The film captures his dismissive reaction to the Band’s 2008 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, something he sees as nothing more than a marketing ploy by the suits that run the record business, with his angrily lamenting the fact that nobody bothered to recognize bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel when they were alive.
What you get are a lot of slightly disjointed but amazing moments such as Levon toking up with Billy Bob Thornton, post-Midnight Ramble, answering Thornton’s question about the negative critical response to the Band’s third album Stage Fright. “On that third Band record, it was pretty much over. It lasted about five years, but it was over after that second record.” You see Levon serenading his newborn grandson on the mandolin to “In the Pines.” There’s footage of Levon watching The Wild Bunch and talking about it afterwards with family and band members as well as footage of him watching President Bush’s final State of the Union address (“God help America.”) You hear stories about pissing off Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and jamming with Procol Harum. You see him working on the farm with several other elder farmers, clearly in his element. And you see him lamenting Richard Manuel’s 1986 suicide, the hurt and shock still present in his voice.
There are a couple of recurring themes in the documentary. One is Levon’s tenuous grip on his health and his voice. Having recovered from throat cancer, Levon is facing recurring bouts of hoarseness and the cameras accompany him on multiple trips to the doctor’s office to capture the painful experience of having a camera run up his nose and down his throat to film his vocal cords, which are showing signs of damage and the inherent return of the cancer that would ultimately take his life. The second is the process of his working on and recording unfinished Hank Williams lyrics for the Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams project. You see him alternate from passionate interest in the project to detached fatigue as bandleader Larry Campbell struggles to complete Williams’ unfinished song and ultimately see part of the recording process that produced a gem of a song, “You’ll Never Again Be Mine.” The process perfectly captures Levon in his late career humanity, the consummate musician who’s torn between his peaceful life on the farm and the life of the road, a man who even as a shell of his youthful self is still a force to be reckoned with, a man who was at one time on top of the rock and roll heap but who now must keep playing gigs to avoid financial ruin. Levon probably sums it up best when recounting a story near the end of the Band’s existence. Robbie Robertson, who was the most clean living and financially ambitious of the lot, came up to Levon and told him that he was worried about the health of the band members. There was a lot of booze, pills and drugs and he wasn’t sure how much longer people could survive if they kept the Band going. Levon’s response: “I’m in it for the music. I ain’t in it for my health.”