Ain’t In It for My Health: Spending quality time with the legendary Levon

by Mark Burger

Levon Helm is gone, but the memories and the music live on in the hearts of fans everywhere.

This Friday, Jacob Hatley’s documentary Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm will open for a special engagement at the Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema in Greensboro.

As the title implies, the film offers a glimpse into the life of Helm (1940-2012), acclaimed musician, unique personality and incorrigible raconteur. Even when battling the cancer that would eventually claim his life, Helm allowed Hatley’s cameras to follow his every move, whether at his home and studio in Woodstock, an auditorium to perform, a doctor’s office or, on occasion, a quiet spot where he could light up. (Yes, occasionally Helm was known to enjoy a few buds with buds.)

In the fall of 2007, Helm was working on Dirt Farmer, his first studio album in 25 years, which is how he and Hatley first connected. Like many young directors, Hatley was earning his stripes and gaining experience directing music videos.

Growing up, Hatley (who was born in North Carolina) was “obsessed with Martin Scorsese” and had therefore seen his 1978 documentary The Last Waltz — considered by many to be among the definitive concert docs — which detailed the final concert given by the Band. “I was more interested in Levon as a personality than as a drummer and a musician,” Hatley admits.

The Band, which toured with Bob Dylan in the 1960s and ’70s, included Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. The group, whose hits included “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. (Elton John’s 1971 song “Levon” is a tribute to Helm.)

It has long been presumed that lead singer Robertson wanted to test the waters as a film actor, yet it was Helm who established the more interesting career in such films as Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) — in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father — The Right Stuff (1983), Smooth Talk (1985), End of the Line (1988) and the Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below (1997). (That’s right: Steven Seagal and Levon Helm. The mind reels.)

The two-day shoot of the music video eventually bloomed into the collaboration that would yield Ain’t In It for My Health.

After a hard day’s work, Levon and his friends would get together, shoot the breeze, play a few songs and simply enjoy each other’s company. “Levon’s place was the place to be,” laughs Hatley. “There was always such a giddiness and an excitement to him. He loved to laugh. He loved to party.”

Hatley considers himself a narrative filmmaker, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up, and Helm was entirely amenable to the idea. “We just got along,” Hatley recalls. “We just hit it off, and he was at the right time in his life that he wanted to do something like this.” Initially, Hatley considered forgoing a traditional documentary format by simply filming Helm’s get-togethers. He jokingly likened the concept to Louis Malle’s 1981 comedy My Dinner With Andre, the entirety of which consists of a dinner discussion between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory.

Instead, however, he broadened the scope of the film — without losing its intimacy — by incorporating interviews with friends and family members (including Helm’s wife Sandy and daughter Amy), as well as some history of the Band, including footage from Woodstock and, more amusingly, an early TV appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” in which the musicians appear in awe of a customarily befuddled Sullivan.

“There was a lot of history to deal with,” Hatley says. “We had a lot of ‘plot’ happening with the Grammys and his illness” — yet he was determined to keep the film simple, straightforward and always focused on Levon. Dirt Farmer would win a Grammy Award in the category of Traditional Folk Album, but Helm didn’t stop there. Spurred on by Dirt Farmer’s success, he released Electric Dirt in 2009, winning the Grammy in the newly established Americana category. In 2011, Helm’s live album Ramble at the Ryman — recorded during a 2008 concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, also won the Grammy in the Americana category.

Although the film does not mention Helm’s passing, there is the unmistakable feeling of summation, of the inevitable extinguishing of a unique and gifted talent. Ain’t In It for My Health was essentially finished in 2010, two years before Helm’s death, and Hatley reports that he liked what he saw.

“He told me ‘I think you’re about 96 percent there,’” Hatley recalls, laughing. “But I’m still not sure of the 4 percent we missed!” Hatley still considers himself a narrative filmmaker, and he’s currently working on a new project, Carolina Highway Killer, which he describes as a character piece about truckstop women. Of his debut documentary, “I am very proud,” Hatley says. “It’s a ‘hang-out’ movie, that’s what it is — and that’s what we were headed for.”

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