‘Ain’t in It for My Health’: An Intimate Look at the Life of Levon Helm

Benjamin Wright

In his phenomenal exploration of America and rock and roll, Mystery Train, cultural critic Greil Marcus describes The Band as “four Canadian rockers held together by an Arkansas drummer.” The four Canadians were Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. The Arkansas drummer was Levon Helm, a man described by Bob Dylan  as “one of the last true great spirits of my or any other generation.” In addition to drums, Helm also provided those earthy vocals on some of The Band’s best-known songs – among them, “The Weight,” “Ophelia” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” This Arkansas drummer was also the only American (and Southern American at that), in a band that truly captured and embodied the spirit and promises of America, especially the old America and the America of the Deep South, and it was Helm’s tales that provided the clay for many of the songs that Robertson would shape into rustic creations, rough and rugged, earthy, hopeful, anarchic and defiant.


Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, directed by Jacob Hatley, is not seeped with nostalgia like so many other music documentaries (Martin Scorsese’s treatments of Bob Dylan or George Harrison, the Jim Brown directed tribute to Pete Seeger or even – though to a lesser extent – Lian Lunson’s documentary on Leonard Cohen). It is grittier and, one would believe, more truthful – a candid look into the final years of the life of Levon Helm, in many ways the special ingredient that really gave The Band their flavor.


Anyone expecting a biographical sketch will likely be disappointed. This film does not really provide much history or background on Helm or The Band (though there is some). It is really a work targeted at and best appreciated by music fans familiar with the artist and his work. For fans of Helm and The Band, the film is a must-see, if for the music alone – home video-esque performances by Helm and archival footage of The Band.  For music buffs in general, who may not be intricately familiar with the work of Helm (or The Band), the documentary may also be of interest, but not so much as other films about the group, like Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.


While there are moments when the film really touches on Levon Helm’s legacy – such as during the interview with Band biographer, Barney Hoskyns, who explains “Levon is absolutely crucial to what The Band means because he was not only the only American, but the only Southern American in the group, everything The Band is predicated on, Robbie discovering the South through Levon Helm and then writing about it” – overall, this is scant, and can be a bit disappointing to anyone expecting a nostalgic tribute to one of the most important Southern rockers of the late-1960s.


But, this film is not really intended as a romantic trip down memory lane, so much as a portal into the later life of Helm, a man who achieved great things musically, but also struggled with the demons of addiction, the untimely loss of some dear friends and bandmates, cancer, and, relatedly, bankruptcy and foreclosure troubles. 


Taken for what it is, it is an extremely intimate look into the last years of Helm’s life. We meet Levon Helm in the film as a country boy at heart, a man thoroughly familiar with the American landscape (in the opening scene, Helm is giving directions to his driver), who is in touch with nature and music and who is an absorbing storyteller, with the ability to both grab and hold his audience’s attention and make them laugh – many of the things we would expect from a drummer (described by Jon Carroll as “the only drummer who can make you cry”) in a band that represents so much about the collective American experience. 


All in 83 minutes, we sit around with Helm smoking pot, listen to him tell stories, accompany him on trips to the doctor and sit in on songwriting sessions and impromptu performances. The film also touches on Helm’s bitterness with the legacy of The Band, particularly with Robertson’s post-Band success, as the member who most profited off of The Band’s early achievements, receiving both performance royalties and publishing royalties (as primary songwriter).


This honest film takes us on a journey, allowing the audience to share in both the joys and disappointments that Helm encounters along the way. Mixed in with Helm’s private troubles are the birth of his grandchild, recording a track for the 2011 album The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams and his 2012 Grammy win. And, much like life itself, the film’s ending seems rather unpolished, leaving the audience still wanting more.  Aside from an overall feeling that the film could have been more than what it was, it triumphs in what it actually does – giving audiences a snapshot of the life of an important figure in the history of rock and roll and an essential member of The Band.


As the film nears its end, Hoskyns shares the following anecdote: “Sometime in 1975, Robbie comes to Levon and says, you know, I’m concerned about the health of the group. . . . I’m just wondering how much longer we can ride this thing, you know, without serious damage being done to somebody. And Levon’s response is . . . I’m a goddamn musician! I’m not in it for my health!” Shortly after, Helm explains: “Everybody wants to live a long time. But it’s how we live.” Although the film doesn’t deal with Helm’s death (he died of cancer in April 2012), it does touch on his health issues. But, as the film’s title suggests, he was never in it for his health. He was in it for the music. 


Whatever regrets or bitterness he may have had at the end of his journey, only Levon Helm himself really knows, he certainly left behind a remarkable legacy and a body of work, both with The Band and as a solo artist – music that weaved time, space, community, freedom and possibility throughout the notes – music that would make us believe that, at least as a musician who really changed the American music scene, Levon Helm lived his life extraordinarily well.


Unfortunately, these achievements are not all clearly communicated in the film. But for those who are already familiar with the work of Helm (seemingly, the intended audience anyhow), as a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, as a powerful tenor who really made the audience feel what he was singing and as a vital link in The Band, Ain’t in It for My Health delivers moments of sincerity that make the audience feel as though they’ve spent a day with this rock icon. And, in the course of that day, we find the man so incredibly likeable and charismatic that he suddenly becomes part of our closest circle of friends, feeling as though we’ve known him for years, which is something very beautiful indeed.


Author Bio:
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Daniel Arnold (Wikipedia Commons); DGans (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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Daniel Arnold (Wikipedia Commons)
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