Drugs, cancer, bankruptcy, unpaid royalties and unresolved resentments have rendered Levon Helm a 70-year-old chunk of Arkansan gristle. But as suggested by the title of Jacob Hatley’s quasi-biopic, “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,” his story is about survival, and singing in the face of death. The muscle in his music, the poignancy of his story and the underlying theme of what kind of life is worth living should provide this fascinating if not entirely revealing portrait with a reasonably robust existence, including select arthouse exposure.
With a career extending from the heyday of rockabilly to his current incarnation as upstate New York farmer, recent Grammy winner and host of musical evenings for the locals of Woodstock, N.Y., Helm has been both witness and contributor to the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll. His most significant period, historically, was as a member of the Band, Bob Dylan’s onetime backup unit, in which Helm was the most distinctive of three great vocalists (the others being the late Rick Danko and Richard Manuel). He was also one of music’s more articulate drummers, something brought home as Hatley charts Helm’s performances on his limited road trips and the so-called “Midnight Rambles” he stages upstate.
What keeps “Ain’t in It for My Health” from being a really satisfying portrait isn’t a lack of access, but a lack of intimacy. Helm never seems entirely at ease in front of the camera; he laughs too hard, tries too hard and never addresses his continued hostility toward onetime Band mate Robbie Robertson, or the rights issues that seem to color his attitude toward the most celebrated period of his career. Such explanations are left to others, including current collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, or Band biographer Barney Hoskyns, who is used to great effect in putting Helm and the Band in historical context. But one would like to have heard it from the horse’s mouth.
Nevertheless, Helm is always a charming and engaging presence, as are Hatley’s other interviewees: Helm’s daughter Amy, or friends like Campbell, who is a major asset to the film both musically and conversationally. Most poignant, perhaps, is Elizabeth Danko, widow of the Band’s bassist and singer, who, from a senior housing complex, recalls with helpless joy the debauchery of the 1974 Dylan/Band tour. Just in case Helm’s own health problems weren’t telling us enough about mortality, Elizabeth Danko reminds us that, eventually, all us have to travel across the great divide.
Hatley avails himself of some rarely seen footage — the Band at the 1969 Woodstock festival, for instance, in a performance they reportedly hated — but there are some curious omissions: nothing from Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” in which Helm was interviewed candidly and at length; nothing from “The Coal Miner’s Daughter,” in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father; not even a snippet from “Shooter,” the Mark Wahlberg vehicle in which Helm portrayed a national security spook. (One can only speculate, but rights issues probably limited the use of such clips.)
Hatley instead concentrates on the present-day life of a musician who’s fighting his own body to stay onstage and at the mike. “Three days out,” Helm says, referring to a short concert tour, “and I need three days in bed.” The amazing thing is that he just keeps plugging away, despite a voice that gives out and a body that’s seen the bad side of the road.
He’s unquestionably one tough bird: During an examination of his worrisome throat (weakened from a battle with throat cancer), he lets his doctor feed a monitoring tube down his left nostril and barely whimpers. After a trouble-free warm-up before one show, his voice suddenly collapses, but he gets on the drum stand and lets rip regardless. We get a sense of why he persists: Late in the film, during the recording of a song he and Campbell have completed out of an unfinished Hank Williams lyric, his voice achieves the earthy/angelic rasp of Levon Helm, circa ’69. Those moments may be rare these days, but they make the struggle worthwhile.
Tech credits values are fine all around, and some of Emily Topper’s shooting is tops.