Ain’t In It For My Health – A Film About Levon Helm

First published at Jun 10th, 2013 | By Derrick Kirkman | Category: Entertainment, Sights

The Legend:

On the off-chance that some reader somewhere doesn’t already know, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band. He was a headliner at Woodstock. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the cover of Time magazine. He stars in what is usually considered the best concert film ever made, The Last Waltz. When Bob Dylan was first booed for going electric, Levon Helm was the man behind the drum kit. In a band known for three of the best singers in the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Helm was the most successful. It would be hard to find anyone in the U.S. who hasn’t heard him sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Weight” or “Up on Cripple Creek”. He was just that good.

Oh, and in his “spare time” he played Loretta Lynn’s father in the film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Chuck Yeager’s fellow pilot and buddy in “The Right Stuff”.

He was even the inspiration for Elton John’s song “Levon”. That is quite a life, by any measure.

But as Tom Vickers, the editor of “Ain’t In It For My Health” said, he could have been a gas station attendant in Arkansas and still be worthy of a documentary.

Vickers is right, and in the end that is the approach film maker Jacob Hatley took with this movie. Sure, there’s quite a bit of great and sometimes rare footage from The Band’s career, but the film centers on the man and working musician. Levon Helm the rock star gets his due, but it’s the often hilarious, wise, and unusually warm old farm boy from Arkansas who steals the show.

The Man, in Real Life:

Tom Robbins wrote that sex is like kicking death in the ass, while dancing. There is no sex in “Ain’t In It for My Health” but death does get roughed up quite a bit. Thank goodness. That is the film’s salvation and it offers a bit of salvation for us all.

The movie centers around Helm’s later life. Throat cancer had ravaged his voice and would kill him in a few short years, but Levon Helm faced it with a grace and sense of humor that is astonishing. That old man managed to bring more life to his life, even then, than most of us can pull off on our best day.

In the end, for me at least, that is what makes this film so very enjoyable. Yes, it is a documentary about one of the greatest and most influential singers of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Yes, he continued to make great music until the end. But more than that it is a look at a uniquely American life. Levon Helm remained, through stardom, excess, and all that comes with it, a plain country farmer at heart. And that is beautiful thing to watch.

He was a great story teller. And viewers are treated to some good ones, mostly filmed around his kitchen table. But Levon Helm didn’t lie. Not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t see the point of lying.

I suspect if it ever came down to Levon Helm’s sense of integrity or your feelings, you’d better put on your big boy pants because Levon was going to tell you the truth as he saw it. I miss men like that. They grow rarer every year. But I am grateful to Hatley and his crew for captured a bit of it while it still exists. And I am especially grateful to Levon Helm, partly for the music, partly for the truth, but mostly for being Levon Helm.

“Ain’t In It For My Health” is playing through Thursday, June 13th at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema, 2134 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro, NC. Be there or be square. Check out the trailer here.

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