When it premiered at SXSW in 2010, Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm was a portrait of an ailing but still-vital musician. Now it serves as an epitaph: Levon Helm died of cancer nearly a year ago, on April 19, 2012.
Shot in 2007 and 2008, Jacob Hatley’s film follows Helm — drummer and vocalist for The Band — during an eventful period in which his past and present collide: Dirt Farmer, his first solo album in 25 years, is nominated for a Grammy by the Recording Academy, which also announces that the Band will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. Helm derides the latter as “bullshit” concocted by the industry for commercial reasons. Despite his mounting health problems, he’d rather barrel forward with creative work: touring, “Midnight Rambles” (fundraising concerts) at his farm in Woodstock, and recording a newly discovered Hank Williams song, “You’ll Never Again Be Mine.” (In the film, longtime collaborator Larry Campbell brainstorms new lyrics for the incomplete bridge.) A handful of intimates — Campbell, Helm’s wife Sandy, daughter Amy, Libby Titus (Amy’s mother), and Rick Danko’s widow Elizabeth — provide personal insight, while critic/biographer Barney Hoskyns helps connect the dots on a macro level. Helm himself appears in few interview segments; he’s more at home going about his life, holding forth on everything from platypus venom to George W. Bush to the proper way to catch a catfish.
As rock legacies go, possibly only the Beatles faced a greater burden than the members of the Band when embarking upon their solo careers. Each man dealt with it differently. As Campbell notes, Helm has chosen to ignore it, while those around him would prefer to see him embrace it, or at least come to terms with it. But Helm proves as stubborn in this regard as he has about traveling and performing in spite of ill health. Hoskyns explains that Robbie Robertson drew on Helm’s experiences and heritage to craft the mythic South that appears in the Band’s lyrics, but Helm received little credit for this or for his musical contributions in the form of publishing royalties, a source of lifelong bitterness. In a backstage moment, he admits to fellow Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton that by the time of Stage Fright, it was “pretty much over.” He remains deeply pained by the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.
Ain’t In It For My Health chronicles the details of a career in music — composing, rehearsing, touring, recording — and is packed with great performances. But on a deeper level, its subject is how music interacts with family and aging. Alternating intimate handheld segments with pastoral scenery, the film works a lot like Helm’s music: unassuming and good humored, with a subtle accumulation of emotional power that will sneak up on you now matter how prepared you might think you are.