Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
Today is the one year anniversary of the passing of Levon Helm (1940-2012), drummer/ singer for The Band. Tonight, Cinema Village is marking the occasion by opening the documentary Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm.
I put the poster above as the lead picture because it looks cool, but when this film was made, this is what Helm looked like:
This portrait of Helm during his last years is by turns beautiful and alarming. Most of the film is centered in Helm’s Woodstock home, a hippie heaven of unfinished wood planking that evokes the rural Arkansas of his youth. Surrounded by friends and family, he enjoys sitting around and gabbing and playing music and simply bonding with other people. The rub is, he’s supporting a bunch of them. It’s unclear how many are staff, how many are pals, how many are lovers or relatives, but I do notice there’s a lot of sycophantic laughter going on. Now in his seventies, Helm’s old and sick and would love nothing better than to be in own bed at night. But he’s got a heavy nut, including, ironically medical bills for throat treatments and recurring cancer. So he has to go on the road and sing and play — with that damaged voice. Meanwhile, a lot of the folks around him have been putting on a regular benefit concert for him called the Midnight Ramble, that in turn helps him to pay for his expenses. It’s like a circle that keeps going around around.
Personally, I wonder, why on earth is he doing this to his VOICE? The irony of earning a living by destroying your means to make a living in order to pay for the thing you’re destroying. I get dizzy just trying to parse all that out and I haven’t even touched the roach Levon keeps passing around all through the movie. But it’s all in the film’s title. An anecdote is related to us in which, shortly before The Band broke up in ’76, Robbie Robertson expressed the fear that the way the group had been carrying on was going to take a toll on their well-being. A concern which Helm dismissed with contempt. “Sure, I’d like to live a long life, but it’s how ya live [that’s important]!”
Helm comes across as stubbornly true to himself, but he’s bitter, too. At Robertson, above all, for taking the lion’s share of The Band’s songwriting profits, when it was Helm, the only actual American in the bunch (and one with deep Appalachian musical roots), who introduced the guys to a lot of the sounds that would come to be at the core of their style. And come to think of it, it’s Helm who sings on all their well known hits, “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Up on Cripple Creek”. It’s Helm who’s in movies like Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff. Robertson may be a fine musician but J.Q. Public doesn’t know him from a hole in the ground. Resentful about being taken, Helm is distrustful of the “suits”, refusing even to even acknowledge the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammy’s which he feels is just a sales ploy.
It sounds like a downer, but it’s not. Helm’s life comes across as a sort of messy, never-ending party. Not a wild one, just a pleasant one. And now he’s 72…and it’s simply that he’s 72. Like most men of his age, he’s got health problems and money worries. He even yells and swears at the President on television. But he’s also surrounded by family. And unlike almost all the other cranky old men, he got to spend an entire life making music for his living.
Tickets and info for the Cinema Village showing tonight and tomorrow are here.