Levon Helm, the late drummer and co-lead singer of the legendary roots rock group both bold and bashful enough to simply call itself ‘The Band,’ was an anomaly of rock icons. This, more than anything else, is what permeates the months of intimate access director Jacob Hatley exhibits in his lauded documentary Ain’t In It For My Health, which premiered in New York last weekend at Union Square’s Cinema Village.
The film alludes to Helm’s triumphant past – which includes being the voice of classics like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and the ubiquitous “The Weight” (all featured in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed rock-umentary The Last Waltz), as well as drumming on some of Bob Dylan’s earliest electric tours in the mid-60s and early-70s – but centers more on his family-oriented, musically enriched present, and often the pains of old age on a lively soul. This was a family man first, an obsessively hard-working musician second, a geyser of down-to-earth Arkansan charisma third, and a rock star last.
Which is exactly why we loved him. He was human. He was genuine. Throughout the film, Helm is as open about the cancer that rendered him voiceless for much of the early 2000s – and ultimately would put him to rest on April 19, 2012, one year prior to the film’s New York release – as he is about his affection for his grandchild, whose birth we see Helm celebrate in the most tender manner imaginable. He neither denies, nor glorifies the successes (and excesses) in his past. He mostly treats them with a gregarious, lilted cackle, although he does clearly convey some discomfort, even bitterness, towards the era that, for many icons, would remain the defining period of their lives.
The legend of The Band as an egalitarian musical force remains intact; Levon, despite the 2008 Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy award he won for his solo Dirt Farmer record, would never have wished to be elevated in stature above Band-mates Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson (who co-wrote a number of songs with Reverb writer Tim Gordine), with whom Helm maintained a complicated relationship until their ultimate reconciliation in the days before Helm’s death. Instead, Ain’t In It For My Health leaves us with the image of a flawed, infinitely likeable, funny, obscenely talented, warm-hearted man who loved his job more than anything in the world except for his family.
We think Levon would approve.