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Hangin' with Helm in Ain't in It for My Health



By the end of Ain't in It for My Health, director Jacob Hatley's endearing and laidback look at music legend Levon Helm, I found myself making a list of reminders. The film's casual structure and pace—not to mention the rich material throughout—allow for such mental wanderings. Here's what the list included:

1. Be more like Levon. More than anything, Hatley's documentary captures the former drummer of The Band hanging out with musicians, with his wife and daughter, with celebrities, with his dogs, alone smoking a joint. He hangs out onstage, backstage, at his kitchen table, in his doctor's office, in his home recording studio and performance space in Woodstock, N.Y., on the tour bus and watching TV in an easy chair. He hangs out while telling stories, singing old songs, learning new lyrics, working his land, listening to advice, and simply nodding along when his battered, cancer-stricken voice can't be heard. In all of these situations, Helm demonstrates a stately grace, unassuming presence and blue-collar ethic. Filmed in 2008, four years before Helm died of throat cancer at age 71, he's still vibrant and prolific. I'd give anything to have had a chance to sit across from him at his kitchen table, patiently waiting for the joint to get passed my way, hearing tales about Jimi Hendrix getting pissed at Woodstock.

2. Buy more snacks. The aforementioned kitchen table in Helm's house looks like the centerpiece of an epic college apartment. During frequent late-night hangouts it's covered in open cereal boxes, bags of chips, cans of Coors Light, Solo cups, ashtrays and lord knows what else. Helm parties better at 67 than you will/do/did at 21.

3. Shut up when the music starts. For all the priceless anecdotes and candid conversations traded through clouds of marijuana smoke, Ain't in It for My Health is about great music. Helm is never far from a drum kit, acoustic guitar or mandolin. Even with his throat suffering from years of radiation therapy, he holds onto his distinct drawl when he sings. He's the type of performer who silences a room, even when he's just tuning an instrument. A cover of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is just one of the standouts.

4. Listen to Music from Big Pink again. The Band released its debut album in 1968, and it included three tracks written by Dylan and one of the most influential songs in rock 'n' roll history, "The Weight." Barney Hoskyns, a British journalist and author of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, explains in the film that Robbie Robertson wrote "The Weight" about the American South and specifically Helm, an Arkansas native.

  • photo courtesy Ahron R. Foster
  • Levon Helm

4. Reconsider the roots of roots rock, or Americana, or folk rock, or whatever you want to call it. Like any worthwhile rock doc, Ain't in It for My Health includes a history lesson—mainly, how The Band changed rock music by incorporating country and folk, tapping into a distinctly southern romanticism and dismissing any need for showmanship. Without belaboring the point or becoming heavy-handed, it's a lesson worth noting as bands like Mumford & Sons make an impression in the current rock landscape.

5. Reconsider Canada. It's mentioned at least once that one of America's most influential rock bands actually included four Canadians and just one American, Helm.

6. Listen to Dirt Farmer again. Helm's first studio album since 1982 came out a year before this documentary was filmed and introduced him to a new generation of music fans. About halfway through the film, Helm learns that the album has been nominated for a Grammy and that he's been chosen to receive a lifetime achievement award. His ambivalence to the lifetime achievement "bullshit" is vintage Helm. He's much more interested in working through the lyrics of a recently uncovered and still unfinished Hank Williams song.

7. Don't smoke. Almost all of the archival footage of The Band shows Helm singing with a butt bobbing on his lips. Juxtapose those images with scenes of Helm's doctor shoving a tiny camera up his nose and down his throat to diagnose the drummer's failing voice. The latter offers a humbling view of an aging icon.

8. Don't get high with Billy Bob Thornton.

9. Keep money in perspective. During one part of the film, Helm vaguely says that the money didn't always add up for The Band. Despite the writing process being largely collaborative, Robertson took the creditand the considerable royalties. But Helm's creative approach to covering his debt and medical bills overshadows any lasting bitterness. Intimate concerts at his Woodstock, N.Y., home, dubbed "Midnight Rambles," helped raise desperately needed funds and further his standing among roots rock fans.

Those concertslike Helm's legacycontinue today. A film like Ain't in It for My Health can only help bolster the effort because Hatley does more than just document the man's music and place in history. It spends time with the man himself, unguarded and real.

Ain't in It for My Health makes its Montana premiere as part of the Big Sky Film Series Mon., May 20, at the Top Hat Lounge. 7 PM. Free.

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