Ain’t In It for My Health – A Film About Levon Helm
Distributed by Kino Lorber Edu, 333 West 39 St, Suite 503, New York, NY 10018; 212-629-6880
Produced by Mary Posatko and Ren Segna
Directed by Jacob Hatley
DVD , color, 83 min.
Sr. High - General Adult
Popular Music, The Band, Bob Dylan, Amy Helm, Larry Campbell, Americana, Woodstock, Levon Helm Band
Reviewed by Vincent J. Novara, Curator, Special Collections in Performing Arts, University of Maryland
Date Entered: 9/19/2013
“Drugs, bankruptcy, cancer – you know, it’s a different kind of survival story,” comments Amy Helm, Levon Helm’s daughter, as well as a singer in his band. Ain’t In It for My Health intimately documents the survival of not just the remarkable life of a great musician and occasional actor, but also his deserved legacy among the elite of rock music. Helm is best known for his work with The Band as a technically capable drummer with a buoyant groove, as well as one of the group’s lead vocalists, with his voice perhaps the most distinctive. The Band, a Canadian/American group, are remembered both for their tenure as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and for their own performance and recorded history – particularly, their first two albums.
Shot over a period of two and a half years between 2007 and 2009, Jacob Hatley’s documentary of such a notable musician is not the standard fare offered today with celebrities lining up to provide fawning commentary and bloated opinions; nor is it pocked with rehearsed interviews. Instead, viewers are invited to witness the final productive years of Helm’s life in loosely assembled footage of first-person perspective presenting events that unfold as the day-to-day living of an aging rock star. As a result, the narrative is not always coherent and the contemporary footage is not given much context.
For example, the documentary meanders towards the completion of a recording, which is not wrapped by the end of filming. It is never explicitly stated which of the later Levon Helm Band recording sessions the documentary is capturing. Fortunately, the film does not come across as a promotional vehicle for the subsequent album (likely 2009’s Electric Dirt).
The pace is slow at times and Helm had a tendency to drift when telling stories. Though, he always appears friendly and charming in all situations – even when visiting oncologists about the disease that eventually terminated his life. (Viewers get to witness multiple nasal endoscopies.) Thanks to Helm’s engaging character and natural down-home charisma, he is not only an easy person to root for, but a joy to observe in all of his environments. He appears constantly surrounded by friends and/or family, frequently holding court at a cluttered kitchen table – he is rarely if ever seen alone.
Hatley provides generous glimpses into Helm’s home life and the unpretentious manner in which he lived out his years. However, Helm’s home, affectionately named “The Barn,” did feature a terrific recording studio and performance space, in which the Midnight Rambles were held. The Midnight Rambles – monthly, informal, intimate performances of the Levon Helm Band – were organized as a means for Helm to bring in funds to pay his bills and “save his house.” Viewers will wish for more extended performance footage documenting these events (hopefully a bonus feature on the commercial release of the DVD). The rootsy interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” heard here is especially compelling (an arrangement from Jericho by The Band, 1993), as are numerous spontaneous moments of informal music making. Throughout, performance documentation is excellent revealing details about instruments and techniques, as well as performance practice and creative process with collaborators. One such figure is Larry Campbell, who is given considerable screen time throughout the entire documentary. His commentary is insightful, and his interactions with Helm demonstrate the great respect he had for the musician who entrusted him to serve as music director for the Levon Helm Band. Campbell’s repeated appearances never come across as intrusive, and his skill as a multi-instrumentalist is deftly captured.
The contemporary performance footage is interspersed with wonderful historical footage of The Band borrowed from other sources – including behind the scenes content. Some bitterness on Helm’s part is displayed, particularly in regards to institutions like the Grammy Awards, the lack of commercial recognition The Band received when they were active, and issues with business practices of The Band. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition with footage of Helm meeting with promoters attempting to assist him in planning a lucrative tour schedule. Apart from the candid conversations, footage is rounded out with the surrounding countryside in various seasons that are used to set tone and indicate the passage of months. The film stops abruptly soon after the birth of Helm’s grandchild and his winning a Grammy Award for Dirt Farmer on the same night he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
This documentary will prove a worthy acquisition for any music library at an academic institution with a thriving popular music program. Of course, interested viewers should also see Martin Scorsese’s exemplary concert film The Last Waltz (United Artists, 1978), capturing The Band at their close. For additional footage of that group interacting and touring with their contemporaries, there is the documentary Festival Express (THINKFilm, 2003). For interest in Helm’s work as an actor, viewers cannot go wrong with Coal Miner’s Daughter (Universal Pictures, 1980), where he portrays Loretta Lynn’s father. A tribute concert, Love for Levon – A Benefit to Save The Barn, was filmed and released on DVD in 2013 (Time Life). Overall, Ain’t In It for My Health is not just for the fans and scholars who will appreciate the candid footage of Helm, but also for serious students of the rock and roll life, and its outcomes for the aged stars. This is the story about the end of a career and a way of living. And by the end of this documentary, you will feel like you have gotten to know Helm the man, who managed to make a life on his terms through to the end.