Shot over the course of more than two years, 'Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm' is certainly not hurting for footage of its ailing subject, as he mounts an impressive fourth quarter comeback by beginning the process of creating his first studio album in more than 25 years, despite continuing to deal with the side effects of a lengthy battle with throat cancer that nearly left the musician and performer without his voice – or, in other words, the tool of his trade.
For those who aren't familiar, Levon Helm was the drummer and vocalist for The Band, a rock group that rose to prominence in the shadow of Bob Dylan before exposure found them touring on their own in the late '60s and '70s. Helm's musical talent, along with his deep, affecting voice and innate Southerness were not only a major component of The Band' signature sound, but his life also reportedly often served as the springboard for the songs written by Robbie Robertson. Songs like 'The Weight,' 'Up On Cripple Creek' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' – though the validity to some of those claims has become as contentious as the relationship between Helm and Robertson in their years away from The Band.
But as much as Helm's name is inextricably linked to that band, the music of that era, and things like Woodstock (which is both the location of the festival at which The Band played and where Helm lived with his wife and children up until his death in April of 2012), the task for 'Ain't In It For My Health' isn't to simply act as a retrospective of a musician's lengthy career, in what would be the twilight of his life; it is to candidly demonstrate the kind of full and creative life this musician continued to strive for, despite significant setbacks he faced with regard to his finances and, ultimately his health.
Director Jacob Hatley takes a distinctly fly-on-the-wall approach to filming Helm while he is talking with friends and family at his home, performing in the studio or in front of an audience, or, most excruciatingly, sitting in a doctor's office wincing with pain as an instrument is pushed down his throat through his nose, to inspect the damage that was wrought by the throat cancer he'd been fighting since the '90s. Remarkably, though, whether Helm is at the kitchen table, behind a drum set or microphone, or turning a discussion on interstate travel into a full-fledged and seemingly meaningful conversation, Hatley never inserts himself (or even the idea of the camera's presence, really) into any situation, wisely knowing that his subject doesn't require or even want that kind of deliberateness in regard to this documentary.
Instead, 'Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm' is acutely aware of the man whose name is on the title, as Helm himself was during filming. Helm's past with The Band, his falling out with Robbie Robertson, the battles over royalties, and the mourning he's done for fellow bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel only serve to enhance the context of where the film ultimately follows its subject. Woven throughout the documentary's loose structure are moments that are as deeply moving as they are personal, while others simply display Helm's unreserved personality, his ability to laugh with those in his company, regaling everyone with stories about duck-billed platypuses or reminiscing about the people he did drugs with at Woodstock. Hatley's camera captures Helm sweetly singing 'In the Pines' to his newborn grandson with the same unobtrusive nuance, as it shows Larry Campbell (Helm's frequent collaborator) trying to work out the last bit of an unfinished Hank Williams song with a clearly exhausted Levon sitting next to him.
While the film focuses on those elements from the present, the past, and Helm's "unresolved feelings" towards that part of his life continue to crop up no matter what. But whether a conversation with Billy Bob Thornton about Hawaiian pot and sushi is briefly interrupted, so the actor can seek an answer about just what happened with The Band (and in that company, who can blame him?), or when a doctor asks for an autograph (after what looked to be a fairly uncomfortable procedure), Helm never really lets anyone but Hatley or his wife see where those "feelings" have taken him. And those emotions never rise closer to the surface than when he contemptuously discusses the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement "bullsh**" with his wife, after finding out about it along with the nomination for the first record he had produced in over two decades.
Helm told his director he wasn't interested in a biography, and, to his credit, Hatley obliged the musician as best he could. Focusing on the life Helm still had to live, and the events that happen within the framework of 'Ain't In It For My Health,' Hatley manages to create an endearing portrait of a man still battling bitterness from his past, while gingerly accepting that which life still had to offer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm' comes from Kino Lorber as a single 50GB Blu-ray in the standard slim keepcase. There are no previews before the top menu, but the film's trailer is available as a supplemental feature.
Despite a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer, 'Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm' is really only as good as the format and manner in which it was shot. Hatley's style is very discrete, and therefore most scenes (aside from the ones conducted as straight Q & A) appear to have been filmed only with whatever light is available in the room. This produces a very relaxed and natural atmosphere that is actually of great benefit to the film, but it also means that the image can look a little hazy or fuzzy at times, generally lacks a great deal of fine detail and exhibits somewhat muted colors. But again, all of this is only a natural byproduct of the documentary's naturalistic style.
There are times, however, when the image does look tremendous. Those moments are when Hatley is filming his subject outside, or in the well-lit offices of Helm's doctor or even recording studio. In those instances, fine detail is superb, and Helm's face is particularly expressive in as much as the years seem to have left their mark on his often smiling, but occasionally sorrowful or distant visage. Elsewhere, when Helm takes a joyride on a neighbor's tractor, the detail is likely never better. Small details in the soil and vegetation are very pronounced, as well as in Helm's face and the faces of all the men he's with.
Generally, the image here suits the purpose of Hatley's film quite well, and that's all that matters. At times, the dark, somewhat grainy picture seems an extension of Helm himself, while at others – especially when Helm is behind a drum set, playing for his fans – it seems as bright and endless as the Levon Helm's convivial smile.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is arguably the most important aspect of this disc's technical side. The film uses some archival footage of Helm playing with The Band, and plays a few select recordings of their more famous songs, but 'Ain't In It For My Health' is far more interested in the Levon Helm who is working on a new record, and what that music and his injured voice sound like today. Unsurprisingly, Helm's voice still carries significant weight and although it breaks, and notes occasionally sound tortured, there's a new kind of power and resonance in it that speaks volumes.
Thankfully, the audio mix here does a terrific job of capturing that sound – and all the other sounds of the film – and reproducing them in a wonderful manner. Music is rich and soulful; it is pushed through the three front speakers, with the rear channels picking up smaller sounds and generally exhibiting an impressive dynamic range. But the sound truly comes alive when Helm is playing or singing live, with his daughter on backup vocals and Larry Campbell playing an instrument. Those in person (and sometimes impromptu) performances sound incredible, in an authentic and freshly prepared way the older recordings don't have. Everywhere else, the film is primarily dialogue driven, and to the disc's credit, all the dialogue is clear and distinct – though Helm's Arkansas drawl can occasionally provide difficulties in understanding what he's saying.
There is some really great sound on this disc, and considering music fans will most likely be the audience for this documentary, that's a good thing.
'Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm' is an interesting depiction of a man who refuses to believe his best days are behind him. Helm's level of optimism and sustained enjoyment of life – which is crossed with his cynicism about the music business – presents an intriguing subject who is interested in maintaining his art, while also dealing with issues from his past. For fans of The Band, this will undoubtedly be a must see, but even if you've never heard of Levon Helm, or listened to his music, this one is definitely recommended.