Film Review: Ain't in It for My Health

Heartfelt tribute to musician Levon Helm receives a theatrical release on the anniversary of his death in 2012.
Reviews

Shot over a two-year period, Ain't in It for My Health follows Levon Helm as he rehearses, performs, reminiscences, and copes with failing health. Originally intended to document his Midnight Ramble concerts, the film now serves as a subdued memorial to a towering musician who died in 2012.

Low-key and intimate, the film finds Helm chatting with friends in his home in Woodstock, N.Y.; trying out songs old and new; recalling stories from the road; and coping with day-to-day life marked by financial and medical problems. Helm's iron will and astonishing musicality are all on display, as is a touching, at times shocking vulnerability.

Director Jacob Hatley doesn't try to fill in all the details of a career that stretches back to the 1950s, but as scenes accumulate some of Helm's accomplishments fall into place. He worked with rockabilly pioneer Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, but is remembered today as the anchor of The Band, a group that helped shift popular music from psychedelia to a compelling amalgam of country, folk and blues.

The film alludes to but doesn't fully explain the split between Helm and Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, but Helm's bitterness remains stark and uncompromising over thirty years later.

Helm never lost his Arkansas accent, and hearing him rasp through tall tales on the road and offer rural tips on pigs and catfish brings the past to life in ways few other artists could match. "Richard, he was the one," he says about Band singer and pianist Richard Manuel, a suicide in 1986. "No sleeve, much less something up it."

The filmmakers catch Helm as he makes his way through the spiritual "Gloryland," tackles a notebook of lyrics left behind by Hank Williams, and collaborates with blues harmonica player Little Sammy Davis—a range of styles and influences that is beyond the grasp of most musicians working today.

The selection of archival clips includes the expected footage from Woodstock (with Helm singing "The Weight"), Wembley Stadium (as The Band tears through "Chest Fever"), and "The Ed Sullivan Show," but also features revealing snatches of rehearsals and a delightful glimpse of Helm playing the drums on Canadian TV in 1959.

Supporting interviews include Helm's daughter, Amy, herself a musician and member of the band Ollabelle; Band biographer Barney Hoskyns, who adds some crucial background; Rick Danko's widow, Elizabeth, full of regret over what the past has led her to; and Helm's wife, Sandy, whose concern for her husband is palpable.

Helm suffers many setbacks in the course of Ain't in It for My Health, and some of the medical scenes are difficult to watch. His clothes hang loosely on him, and his voice often fails him. But through it all Helm remains both an amazing talent and an inspiration.