The laid-back oak-aged voice of Levon Helm telling stories about catching catfish, smoking boutique weed or talking shit about the music business makes for an entertaining movie. His toothy grin, manic cackle and weathered face add to the show. That, along with a few painful clips of Helms visiting the doctor, and ample footage of him singing and playing, makes up the bulk of Ain't In It For My Health, a documentary about Helm, which opens at Real Art Ways later this month.
Helm, who died last year at the of 71, played and sang in the Band. He was a great and underappreciated drummer (one whose sound influenced everybody, including, perhaps most notably, the Beatles). His voice had the heft, grit, and dark-hollow spookiness of people like Ralph Stanley and Dock Boggs, with the slow-burning soulful country touch of singers like Charlie Rich.
Ain't In It For My Health does not fully explore or explain the famous rift between Helm and his former bandmate in the Band, the singer, guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson. The film doesn't investigate Helm's early years, his funky, snare-centric and understated drumming style or his time playing behind people like Bob Dylan. It serves mostly to allow viewers to hang out with Helm, to watch and hear him sing, and drum and tell stories with his friends, family and colleagues as they await word on the status of his 2008 Grammy nomination. We see Helm and his collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, work on fleshing out and putting long-lost Hank Williams lyrics to music. It's a pleasant and mellow ramble, in no hurry to get anywhere in particular, similar to its subject.
Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, from 1978, documented the Band's last concert. And Levon Helm is an entertaining dude in the film. The sole member of the Band from the U.S. (the other four were Canadian), Helm retained a down-home Arkansas drawl. His voice, life and sensibility gave the Band its footing in American roots.
The camera mostly wanders as Helm does his thing. He doesn't sit for any sustained interviews. The degree to which Helm wanted to embrace or shun his legacy as part of the Band is a subject that some of his collaborators and friends speculate about, but no one asks him directly.
When the Grammys propose giving him an honor for his work with the Band Helm dismisses it, saying "It's a goddamn sales gimmick, plain and simple; it don't mean anything … It's just that old lifetime-achievement bullshit."
Band biographer Barney Hoskyns is given the task of explaining the group's significance within the context of the late-60s music scene, their origins in Canada, and their work with Dylan and the subsequent split between Helm and Robertson, who, it's said, took inspiration from Helm's upbringing and country culture to write some of the Band's best-known songs, which Helm also sang, like "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The dispute hinges on different types of royalties — Helm and his bandmates got royalties from the sales of their recordings, but the real money was to be made from the songwriting royalties. (In 2003 Helm famously started hosting live concerts from his property in order to avoid bankruptcy.) Songwriting is an elusive and often collaborative process, even if it's clear that one person created the bulk of a tune.
"Levon is absolutely crucial to what the band means," says Hoskyns. "Everything is predicated on Robbie discovering the South through Levon Helm and then writing about it."
And after catching snippets of Helm's whiskey-flavored worldly wisdom, it's not hard to imagine how a songwriter with open ears would have found inspiration there.
"You get behind financially, and once you get behind financially, you get behind spiritually, and your luck turns against you," Helm says about his and the Band's undoing. "It seems like trouble will snowball."
Drugs, alcohol and emotional trauma took their toll on his bandmates. Bassist and singer Rick Danko died from from a heart attack at the age of 56. Before that, singer and piano player Richard Manuel had committed suicide when he was 42. (Footage of Helm singing the refrain from Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," which goes "everything dies, baby, that's a fact," is particularly poignant given his health and the fate of some of his bandmates.)
But Helm's reflections on hardship and suffering are funny.
On the subject of Manuel, he says this: "Richard didn't have no sleeve, much less something up it." And then: "He wasn't old and he wasn't weak and he wasn't drunk ... all the time. He was a brilliant damn guy."
The name of the film, too, comes from a line allegedly spoken by Helm when the Band was on the verge of falling apart due to substance abuse, ill health and interpersonal stress. When Robertson suggested to Helm that the group take a break in order to possibly preserve and prolong their lives, Helm said "I ain't in it for my health."
Hoskyns elaborates. "You don't go into music to be healthy," he says. "It's not a career choice you make based on how long you want to live."
Helm probably should have lived beyond 71, but considering the hard-living, the drugs and the brushes with near-financial ruin, he did pretty good. We get to see him gazing at a picture of his new grandchild, greeting adoring crowds and generally chilling out. Up until the very end he seemed to embody his ethos about pursuing an existence that has character, quality and soul over all else.
"Everybody wants to live a long time," says Helm, laughing, "but [it's not how long we live] it's how we live."
Ain't In It For My Health
Opens Aug. 30, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org