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AUSTIN — Robbie Robertson was The Band’s main songwriter, but drummer and vocalist Levon Helm was its Southern heart and soul, the man whose upbringing and worldview acted as the muse for their greatest works. Jacob Hatley’s documentary “Ain’t In It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” is a captivating look at a musician hanging onto his art for dear life, even when he’s too weary to perform. It should do well on the fest circuit and hold home video appeal for music fans.
Helm is the only Band member from the U.S., and Hatley creates a compelling argument that it was his style that guided the group during their 1970s peak. After a life of stardom that included copious drug use for years and surviving throat cancer in the late ’90s, Helm is now 69 but looks at least a decade older. But though he’s been worn down by time and illness, the doc finds him no less willing to compromise his sound or vision.
Hatley’s trim film spends time with Helm shortly before he won the Grammy for his 2007 folk record “Dirt Farmer,” and it’s clear from the start that Helm is more focused on his music and friends than playing along with PR stunts. In addition to his Grammy nom, the Band was given a lifetime achievement award by the Recording Academy, but Helm declined the invitation and spat at the attempt by “suits” to drum up sales. “I just wanna know what good that’ll do Rick (Danko) and Richard (Manuel),” he says pointedly, speaking of Band members who died years before.
Aside from occasional interviews with a biographer, the film is a no-frills look at Helm’s life, right down to trips to the doctor to keep an eye on the vocal cords that took a beating during radiation treatment. He spends time at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., where he hosts regular Midnight Ramble concerts and works on new music. The performances included are wonderful and organic, and the tunes — including Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” which the Band covered on its fourth album, and a fantastic rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” — have that timeless Americana feel.
Chatting with a visiting Billy Bob Thornton over a blunt, Helm says he feels more at home in his quiet corner of the woods than anywhere else and that “everywhere else looks like Lankershim Boulevard.” Hatley’s film deftly captures a man near the end of his life but not past his creative peak — and one who’s determined to go out on his own terms.
Production: 15 to 50
With: Levon Helm, Amy Helm, Barbara O’Brien, Larry Campbell, Sandy Helm, Teresa Williams
Director: Jacob Hatley
Executive producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Producers: Ken Segna, Mary Posatko
Directors of photograohy: Emily Topper, Jacob Hatley
Editor: Thomas Vickers
Music directors: The Levon Helm Band
No rating, 90 minutes
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