Directed by Jacob Hatley
Cast Levon Helm, Amy Helm, Barbara O’Brien, Billly Bob Thornton, Larry Campbell, Levon Helm, Teresa William
For those not completely in the know (and I will fully admit to being one of them before watching Ain’t in it for My Health), Levon Helm was the drummer (who also played guitar and mandolin) and singer for the legendary band, The Band. The Band was made up mostly of Canadian members such as Rick Danko (bass guitar, fiddle, trombone and vocals), Richard Manuel (keyboards and vocals), and Robbie Robertson (guitar and vocals), with Helm being the sole U.S. southern boy member of the group. This is significant because The Band’s tunes, by and large, were a fusion of rock and country, with Levon providing a lot of the inspiration behind their music. The moniker of “The Band” came after several successful stints backing artists like Ronnie Hawkins and, most notably, Bob Dylan. After Dylan’s 1966 tour The Band hit the studio to record their first album and began performing on their own in 1968. The Band released a number of studio and live performance records and ended touring as a group with its original members in 1976, peaking quickly and burning out (but not fading away) via the usual route of excess touring coupled with the drugs and rock and roll lifestyle.
Decades later, director Jacob Hatley spent time with Levon Helm during the recording and release of the first album he’d recorded in over 25 years, Dirt Farmer. Most of this documentary was filmed at Helm’s Woodstock, NY home/recording studio/concert venue; when not recording, Helm, guitarist friend Larry Campbell and other members of his current band put on min-concerts regularly. Footage from some of these small shows, particularly Helms and company covering Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City,’ are pure magic – as is most of the movie. The genesis of these shows, originally conceived as a way for the financially and physically ailing Helms to save his house when faced with foreclosure, make you understand just how difficult the aftermath of stardom can be.
Perhaps what made Helms’s post-The Band career most strenuous is the way the group split financials. Interspersed throughout the film are segments of an interview with band historian Barney Hoskyns, through which the viewer learns that Robbie Robertson, the sort of “unofficial” front man of The Band, held onto many of the publishing and royalty rights, earning a small fortune from The Band’s back catalogue while other members did not share in the wealth. This was point of major consternation for Levon Helms, due in no small part to being a major source of source of Southern-style inspiration for the feel of The Band’s music, given the other members’ nationalities as mentioned above. All of this made him decide not to attend the 2008 Grammys when The Band was honored with a lifetime achievement award and his album Dirt Farmer was simultaneously nominated for Best Traditional Folk Album (which it won). In addition to not attending, Helms decided against sending even a written letter of thanks or acceptance for the Lifetime Achievement Award. In the doc, Helms questions why the ‘suits’ didn’t recognize the work as of The Band as it was happening, stating that such events are only useful for driving up record sales. And to be honest, this stance is (at least partially) right.
One of the most interesting facets of watching this documentary comes from hearing Levon’s replies to direct questions on this topic, or seeing his reaction to certain triggers that remind him of the way The Band ended for him. When discussing the past on film, he is energetic and alive the same way he is when performing, but then he’ll let the gears in his head start turning and look away, reminiscing on the past. This comes up even when he’s shown working with Larry Campbell to complete an unfinished Hank Williams song; while coming up with lyrics to complete/complement the phrase “My lonely heart holds no hatred or pain” for the tune that would become “You’ll Never Again Be Mine,” it is clear that Helms harbors pain, if not some level of hatred, for the past.
I’ve skimmed some reviews of Hatley’s film for anecdotal information but have not read them too deeply, not wanting to let them flavor my review, but I couldn’t help but notice that many critics out there have deemed Helms as depicted in Ain’t in It for My Health as “bitter.” This is also a discussion I had with my significant other when watching the film; to be honest, at first I felt the same way. Upon reconsideration, I don’t think Levon was bitter at all. I think he was a realist, and everyone is entitled to take a stance on the way they have been treated. Indeed, rather than bitter, I think Levon was justified in his opinion on the way The Band split occurred given subsequent hardships. He also obviously still feels pain due to band brothers that were lost – one, Rick Danko, died of heart failure in 1999 and another, Richard Manuel, committed suicide after a performance in 1988. Helms himself had been diagnosed with cancer for over a decade at the time of Ain’t in It for My Health’s filming, and finally succumbed to the disease in 2012 – but not after kicking the disease’s ass enough times to ensure that his voice always came back when it came time to perform, as much (and maybe more than) humanly possible.
So while there was plenty of pain in Helm’s heart and body, there was also monumental joy in every cell of his being in the act of creating and performing music. Ain’t in It for My Health exceeds on a stellar level when conveying this through performance footage new and old, and in more intimate moments such as the act of lyrical composition (and subsequent track laying) of “You’ll Never Again Be Mine” as previously described. And the best example of this is when Helms visits his newly born grandchild, playing the mandolin and singing to her, perhaps just for the joy of performing for this most intimate and important audience of one, but even more so to ensure that the music plays on and on, this act becoming a transference of art from from one generation to the next. This is the greatest message Hatley passes on with his film, but the smaller, everyday moments of conversation and reflection in Helms’s life gathered within are no less significant or enjoyable. This reviewer could have easily watched another hour or two of a year or two in the life of Helms edited down for consumption purposes (as it is, the film is relatively short at one hour and twenty-three minutes).
Ain’t in It for My Health is a stellar documentary that fans and non-fans alike should see. After all, music and artists’ commitment to their craft, even though sometimes creating a harmful dichotomy with their psyche and physical well-being, do help this world go round.
This review was prepared from a screening copy provided by production company Kino Lorber and director Jacob Hatley. Check out the film’s official website here for trailers and viewing options.