Levon Helm: Ain’t In It For My Health (Film Review)
Last week at the Nashville Film Festival, I finally got a chance to check out Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm. I’d been excited to see this since I saw a short teaser-trailer for the film about a year ago. I had the opportunity to see Helm last spring when he brought his Midnight Ramble to the Ryman Auditorium, and it goes up there with one of the best dozen or so evenings of music I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I came to Helm more through his recent solo recordings on Vanguard Records than through his legendary work with The Band. Truth be told, my experience with The Band was more through classic rock radio than as a dedicated, knowledgeable fan, so I was especially interested to learn a little more about Helm’s history. A traditional bio doc was not the film director Jacob Hartley set out to make, however. In the post-screening discussion he described AIIFMH as a “hang-out film” or a “character study” of Helm which I think is a pretty accurate description. While the film does spend a little bit of time discussing Helm’s past and legacy though interviews with friends and journalists, the vast majority of AIIFMH is an old school cinema verite approach, watching Helm’s day to day life in Woodstock, NY with friends, family, musicians, and lots of pot smoke.
At some point I lost count of the shots with Helm in his bathrobe rolling, smoking, or doctoring a joint with scissors at his kitchen table (seriously, those weed scissors were more pervasive in the film than Helm’s drum sticks.) I can’t recall that Helm was ever actually interviewed in the film; mostly we just see his day to day interactions at his Woodstock home. As a result, the film had a very intimate quality, though I found myself wanting to know more about Helm’s feelings towards his past. His longtime feud with Robbie Robertson and his obviously bitter feelings about The Band’s history are only alluded to and never fully explored. In short, I think one leaves the film getting a strong sense of Helm’s outward personality, but his emotions and motivations are rarely revealed.
Like any compelling personality, Helm seems to be a man full of paradoxes. There is boyish sense of play within Helm, but also the quiet stillness of a wise elder. Given his health problems (he battled throat cancer in the late 90’s) and his age (he will be 71 next month), an undeniable vulnerability resides within him. However, one is also impressed with a resolute will and a quiet stubbornness that exude an inner strength and sense of purpose. The interviews with family and friends indicate a deep love and sense of protection, but also imply that Helm is not a man who can be easily persuaded or cajoled. For instance, Helm’s friend and musical collaborator, Larry Campbell, cautiously hints at his own frustration at Helm’s indifference (or bitterness) regarding the legacy of The Band. Campbell is also deliberate in taking a wide berth around Helm’s position, not wanting to push too hard if at all. Regardless of his history with The Band, though, Helm is making some of the best music of his life today which is the film’s primary focus.
AIIFMH offers footage from the legendary Ramble concerts held each month at his Woodstock studio, giving the audience an opportunity to see Helm’s musical vitality within a fragile voice and body. The film also shows Helm and Campbell working on a series of recently found unfinished Hank Williams tunes whose lyrics they are completing (an almost sadistic teaser for future recordings, hopefully.) Watching Helm collaborate in this process is perhaps the most quietly revealing part of the film.
We see a man who appears almost exhausted by the project, but one who also understands the importance of America’s musical legacy. Helm only offers enough energy or input to make certain the songwriting meets his approval, and only offers a fatigued sense of enthusiasm when his stoic instruction leads to the right lyrics. These scenes, like much of the whole film, show a man tired, world-weary, and well beyond any sense of pretension or need to impress anyone, but also one who doesn’t know how to stop doing what he’s always done – make enduring art born of integrity and deep emotion. Such accomplishments, and the lifestyle that often accompanies them, can certainly take a toll on one’s physical well-being. Lucky for us, such corporeal concerns were never Helm’s motivation.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.