‘Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm’: The music never stopped

April 15, 2013

Jacob Hatley’s documentary about the late Levon Helm (who died in 2012) is a flinty valedictory to a rough-hewn but cagey and soulful musician.

“Ain’t In It For My Health” is a title that comes with two meanings. One is the issue of Helm’s mortality, on painful display in this film, which was shot around 2007-09, when he was recovering from a bout with throat cancer and in the process of recording “Electric Dirt,” an album that would ultimately win him a Grammy. The cancer eventually would recur and kill him but, during much of the filming here, he seems game and ready to play music.

The other meaning comes in a story later in the film, in which Robbie Robertson (who was seen as the creative engine within The Band) decided to quit touring and recording with the group, citing concerns about the health of some of the other members. When told of Robertson’s remark, Helm replied, “Ain’t in it for my health.”

In this film, his voice is a thread of its former self; that throaty Arkansas yelp has been reduced, in the way that wine is reduced for cooking. What’s left is a stark, earthy essence, perhaps not as strong but no less determined.

Hatley watches Helm in the studio and with the people in his band, including his daughter, Amy. We hear him dismiss a recording industry honor as politics and learn of his still-simmering resentment against Robertson, whose share of The Band’s profits turned out to be larger than the other members’.

But while Hatley sketches The Band and its influence on popular music of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Helm himself isn’t interested in nostalgia or talking about the old days, and apparently neither are most of the other participants. No other members of the Band are interviewed here, so we have to settle for archival footage (which is slim) and the postulations of journalists, rock historians and other second-handers.

Instead we get Helm’s doctor visits, as he endures biopsies and other painful-looking tests, to check for the recurrence of cancer. Later, when his voice suddenly disappears altogether, he endures another health scare. It’s not enough, however, to keep him from happily toking on a joint whenever he has the chance.

But he looks like he was a hard man to shake – a veteran of big-business music industry battles, as well as bouts with drugs and a struggle with sobriety. In all of this, the impression comes through strongly that the music is what kept him going as long as it did.

It would have been nice to see Helms at one of the so-called “Midnight Rambles” he used to throw regularly in his barn in Woodstock, where he lived. He would gather musicians for a jam session, charge admission and just play the songs they all knew.

While Helm is honest, he’s not exactly forthcoming. His taciturn middle-American stock shows through, like a gnarled oak stripped of leaves. He is someone whose rock’n’roll career didn’t stray very far from the blues and country roots that were part of Helm’s musical identity and which lived on in his voice.

“Ain’t In It for My Health” is not revelatory, but it offers a portrait of a tough American musical spirit, fighting through until the end and taking energy and solace from the music he created.

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