'Ain't In It For My Health' documentary is a slice-of-life portrait of Levon Helm

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 27, 2013 


The documentary "Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" gives a raw portrait of Helm's final years.


  • “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm”


    Cast: Levon Helm with friends, family and associates

    Director: Jacob Hatley

    Length: 82 minutes

    Unrated; contains obscenity, drug references

    Details: thechelseatheater.com or levonhelmfilm.com

    • Following Friday night’s screening, there will be a panel discussion with director Jacob Hatley, producer Stephen Bower, editor Thomas Vickers and musician Laurelyn Dossett.

Early on in “Ain’t In It For My Health,” Levon Helm’s daughter talks about her father as “a different kind of survival story.” That he is, which is perfectly appropriate given Helm’s unusual hall-of-fame calling card – lone American Southerner, iconic voice and beating heart of the great ’60s American-music ensemble from Canada, The Band. But as this film shows, there’s a lot more to Helm than the distant past.

“Ain’t In It For My Health” was a labor of love for its director, Asheboro native Jacob Hatley, who will be at Friday night’s Chapel Hill opening at The Chelsea (where Hatley worked while a student at UNC). It’s less a standard rock documentary than slice-of-life portrait of one of the past century’s great characters, musical or otherwise. Wide swaths of Helm’s life and history go unmentioned, including his acting career; this is a movie that assumes the viewer will have some knowledge of its subject. But that subject is so bursting with life and presence that it succeeds anyway.

While Helm never agreed to be formally interviewed for the film, he gave Hatley and crew free run of his Woodstock homestead, which they moved into for two years. Hatley fills in some of the blanks with archival footage of Helm in his prime, when The Band was Bob Dylan’s backup group, and by interviewing many of Helm’s friends and relatives.

But the most memorable parts of the film are Helm himself holding court at his kitchen table. Whether explaining the finer points of how to keep hogs from digging things up (put rings in their snouts) or recalling with a broad grin how “pissed” Jimi Hendrix was about having to play Woodstock at dawn, Helm is as much a showman as a tale-teller as he ever was onstage.

Much of what you see in the film happened during an eventful stretch of 2008, around the time Amy Helm gave birth to Levon’s grandson and his 2007 comeback album “Dirt Farmer” won a Grammy Award. The footage of Helm literally lighting up while viewing a picture of his new grandson is lump-in-the-throat beautiful.

But as the title hints, not all the events happening then were positive. At that time, Helm was still struggling with his health in the aftermath of the throat cancer that had sidelined him a decade earlier (and would eventually come back to kill him last year at age 71). The film features several medical appointments in which Helm suffers through a tube being stuck down his nose – which doesn’t stop the doctor from asking for an autograph. Neither does it keep Helm from firing up a joint with regularity.Through it all, Helm is also shown struggling with mixed feelings about his own legacy with The Band. The same ceremony where he won a Grammy for “Dirt Farmer” also featured a lifetime-achievement award for The Band. But Helm couldn’t be bothered to attend or even put out a statement of appreciation.

“Ah, it’s just all that old ‘lifetime achievement’ B.S.,” he scoffs, his bitterness still evident.

The Band was one of the top bands of the ’60s, with two million-selling albums and another six that earned gold records. But little of the money made its way to Helm, which left him feeling exploited. He spent the last decade of his life teetering on the edge of destitution, and it’s unbearably sad to watch him have to keep working when he clearly shouldn’t be. Three days on the road playing shows leaves him needing about that many days at home in bed to recover, and for much of the film he can’t speak above a whisper.

“That’s the problem with getting sick,” Helm sighs into the phone at one point. “First you try and get well, and then you try and keep from going bankrupt.”

For all that, “Ain’t In It For My Health” is not a downer. Even in its diminished state, Helm’s voice has a ragged majesty when singing a resurrected Hank Williams song or Greensboro songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s “Anna Lee.” At the end of the movie, nothing is said about Helm’s death in April 2012. But that, too, seems appropriate. It’s hard to believe someone so alive could ever be gone.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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