The documentary was originally screened at South by Southwest in 2010 while Levon Helm was still alive, but with his death from cancer in 2012, the film now serves as a heartfelt tribute to a true American original.
by Adam Ellsworth
In the mid ‘70s, as the Band were nearing their dissolution, guitarist and main songwriter Robbie Robertson said to drummer and main voice Levon Helm that he was concerned for the “health” of the group. If they didn’t slow down, Robertson feared, the constant touring, and the road life that came with it, might lead to someone ending up damaged or dead.
A pretty reasonable concern really, but Helm wasn’t having it.
“I’m a goddam musician,” he replied. “I’m not in it for my health.”
Fast forward thirty years. The Band have long since split up, but Helm hasn’t changed his mind. If he was in it for his health, he says as he paces around a room in his home in Woodstock, he’d be “preachin’ or somethin’. I’d be singin’ in the choir. Shit, everybody wants to live a long time, but it’s how we live.”
It’s these years, the ones long after the Band had split up and just as Helm was starting to once again enter the public eye, that the beautiful >Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm focuses on. The film, which is showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from September 4 through 12, was filmed over two and a half years by Jacob Hatley while Helm toured, performed, and worked on new music. Ain’t in It for My Health was originally screened at South by Southwest in 2010 while Helm was still alive, but with his death from cancer in 2012, the film now serves as a heartfelt tribute to a true American original.
Not that it’s sappy or anything. That wouldn’t be very Levon. That the film was completed well before Helm’s death, or even before there was any reason to think death was around the corner, keeps it from being some kind of meditation on mortality, or a tearjerker about raging against the dying of the light. Instead, it’s a film about endurance and just plain getting on with it, regardless of the obstacles.
“Drugs. Bankruptcy. Cancer. I think it’s kind of a different kind of survival story,” Helm’s daughter Amy says early in the film.
A poignant (and true) statement indeed, though, hilariously, the edge of it is taken off by the footage running underneath it: Levon in the back of an RV, expelling a loud cough and then lighting up a joint. When he realizes the camera has caught him, he just smiles and nods. Ain’t this the life!
Helm sure did lead one hell of a life. Born in Arkansas, he ended up playing rock and roll music with a bunch of Canadians. They called themselves the Hawks and cut their teeth backing Ronnie Hawkins up in the Great White North (Greil Marcus, in his book Mystery Train, called Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks’ version of “Who Do You Love,” “possibly the most menacing piece of rock ’n’ roll ever made,” and if anything, he’s underselling it).
In the mid ‘60s, the Hawks backed some folkie named Bob Dylan, much to the chagrin of “serious” people everywhere. Later in that decade, the Hawks all moved to Woodstock, long before that name meant anything, and started calling themselves simply “the Band,” because that’s what they were. They continued to work with Dylan, but also cut their own records, and found great success into the ‘70s. They called it quits in the late ‘70s, though the group re-formed, minus Robbie Robertson, to tour and record in the 1980s and into the ‘90s. In the years between the Band’s break-up and partial reunion Helm got into acting, most famously playing Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter and a test pilot (and narrator) in the film version of The Right Stuff.
But Helm’s wasn’t totally a life of success. He had money problems for one thing. As he said in a 1987 interview included in Ain’t in It for My Health, “You get behind financially, and once you get behind financially, you seem to get behind spiritually, and your luck turns against you.”
Hatley doesn’t spend too much time in the film on backstory, but he spends enough, augmenting stories Helm tells with archival footage of the Band in performance and interviews with Band biographer Barney Hoskyns. The mother of Helm’s daughter, Libby Titus, and Elizabeth Grafton, the widow of Band bassist Rick Danko, are also interviewed.
When the film picks up Helm’s story in the twenty-first century, his financial problems have diminished, but they are not completely behind him. At one point, as the camera rolls, he says during a phone conversation, “That’s the problem with getting sick. First you try and get well, and then you try and keep from going bankrupt.” It’s clear from this that even into his sixties, Helm had to work to keep afloat. This naturally took its toll, especially on his voice, but he wasn’t always in a good enough financial position to stop. Throw in a cancer diagnosis back in the ‘90s, and life wasn’t always a cakewalk for Helm. But as he made plain, he wasn’t in it for his health.
As the film points out, Helm’s financial salvation, as much as it was a salvation, came from his Midnight Ramble performances, which he started holding on his property in 2003 as a way to keep from losing his house. Throughout the film there are scenes from various Rambles, including one that features a spellbinding version of “Atlantic City” that destroys Springsteen’s already spellbinding original. After the concert, Helm is talking (and smoking) with actor and sometime musician Billy Bob Thorton, who asks him, somewhat awkwardly, how the Band went from two albums as “media darlings” to the third record where… Helm picks up the thread before Thorton can finish and states that by the Band’s third album, 1970’s Stage Fright, “it was pretty much over” and “it was obviously a goddam screw job. The credits, the money and everything was all screwed up.”
From there, we learn in an interview with biographer Barney Hoskyns that “the credits” and “the money” played a big role in undoing the Band. After all, while all five members of the group played on the albums, and most of the group’s most iconic songs were sung by Helm, those same songs were written by Robbie Robertson, which means he, not Helm or the others, got most of the money.
Considering that most of those songs were steeped in Americana and the South, and considering that Helm was the only member of the Band who was actually American and from the South, Hoskyns speculates that Helm’s “beef with Robertson, to a great degree, might be that, ‘You took what I am, and made songs out of that, and then you made all the money from those songs.’”
“Whether these tunes were written, actually sat down and written, by the five of them, I don’t know,” says Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist who collaborated with Helm during this period and is featured throughout the film. “The thing is, and where Levon’s bitterness seems to stem from, is they were all in this together, and now, you know, Robbie’s made a lot of money. And the rest of the guys haven’t.”
Robertson wasn’t interviewed for the film, so he can’t defend himself. Still, there is a long history of bands that didn’t have acrimonious splits arguing about money and publishing, so given the bad blood in the Band, this theory is hardly out of left field.
Whether because of money, credit, or something else, Helm spends all of Ain’t in It for My Health distancing himself from his former band. He has fond memories, sure, and he doesn’t mind telling old stories and having a good laugh over them, but, as he knows too well, you can’t live off that stuff. But you can live off playing, so as the film reaches its end, Helm is performing at another Ramble. It’s the same night as the 2008 Grammys, but Helm doesn’t want anything to do with that. The Band are being given a Lifetime Achievement Award, though, as Helm noted earlier in the film, he thinks it’s “bullshit.” He would go, he says, if they could tell him how it would benefit the group’s deceased bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel. “They [the music industry in general, we assume] never did wanna do a goddam thing for them when they were around. So, I got my doubts about how sincere it all is anyway.” Helm is more enthused about the fact that, Dirt Farmer, his first solo album in 25 years, is up for best traditional folk album. After the Ramble, he finds out that he’s won, and he’s clearly thrilled, but his real prize comes earlier in the day, when his son-in-law comes to show him pictures of his new grandson. “Beaming” doesn’t begin to describe the look on Helm’s face as he sees the child for the first time.
“Amazing,” Helm says of the pictures of his grandson. “He’s been through a tough time, too. His eyes are all swollen up. Look like he got that ol’ Helm nose.”
Sounds like a tough kid. Just like his grandpa.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared in YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, the Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston.They have no pets.