Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (2013) ***

NR, 82 min.
Director: Jacob Hatley
Featuring: Levon Helm, Larry Campbell, Libby Titus, Amy Helm, Billy Bob Thornton

I’ve never seen Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz”. I feel that confession is necessary before commenting on a film about The Band drummer and vocalist Levon Helm. It’s a definite hole in my movie viewing history. In fact, it is one of only two Scorsese films I’ve never seen, the other being “Boxcar Bertha”. Of course, my crime is even greater since I’m such a music fan and quite a fan of The Band. I promise to rectify this deficiency soon.

Before Helm’s death in 2012, this interesting examination of a classic rock musician at the end of his career was made. Filmed in 2008, right around his Grammy nomination and win for the album “Dirt Farmer”, this movie captures the late life of a man who doesn’t quit. Despite the fact that the break up of The Band in 1976 ended the most well-known and documented portion of his career, despite personal setbacks of drug use, bankruptcy, and cancer, Helm kept at it until the very end.

Along with making music, he held onto his grudge against fellow bandmate Robbie Robertson until the very end, telling a story here about how Robertson first suggested the breakup by claiming it was taking a toll on their health. “I ain’t in it for my health,” is what Helm claims his response was to what he viewed more as selfishness on Robertson’s part, who is the sole holder of the publishing rights for The Band’s music and made much more money than the rest of the members. I think Helm proves his adage in this film even though he outlasted his fellow bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. At 71 when he died, he looked older, but still performed and recorded up until his cancer made it impossible.

“Ain’t In It For My Health” isn’t a great source of history for The Band or Levon Helm’s own life. It is more a document on Helm’s undying spirit. Even at a point when his cancer appears to return and he can’t sing, he continues to make music with his late career collaborator Larry Campbell. When they can’t tour, the two work on some unfinished Hank Williams songs. I don’t know if these were ever recorded other than for this film.

This movie made its debut at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, and screened at various other Film Festivals over the next couple of years, finally making a brief theatrical run in U.S. select markets in spring of 2013. Now, it is available among the many great music documentaries available through Netflix Instant. If you love music, this is a film that should be watched.

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