For the fans left bereft by his 2012 death, it’s impossible to imagine a more exquisite, honest, and beautifully detailed documentary about the life of Levon Helm than Jacob Hatley’s Ain’t in It for My Health. This film seems as much man as it does movie, capturing the many sides of The Band’s former drummer: his modesty, his humor, his anger about how his group fell apart. And, without getting all gooey, the doc shows how Helm handled the cancer that hovered over his final decade. Finally, this unassuming little flick makes a sham out of drugs-a-go-go melodramatic crap like Walk the Line—maybe because Hatley never forgets he’s making a movie about a goddamn musician.
This is one of the most fully rounded, unsentimental portraits of an artist you’ll ever see on film. You get Helm talking joyfully about growing up in Arkansas, where the space under the porch was his “own little farm” and the family put rings in the hogs’ noses so they wouldn’t root under the house. We see the adult drummer, white and frightened, as his doctor checks his (barely) cancer-free vocal chords; we see the feisty sumbitch who doesn’t give a damn about his Lifetime Achievement Grammy and claims “it was pretty much over” for The Band after their classic second record, The Band.
Then there’s the music.
We see him tear into his deft drum patterns, sing Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” with his own unmistakably droll drawl, and lead his band with easy authority, the documentary never letting you forget this story ain’t about dope or divorce: It’s about the Glory of Rock. Still, when Helm catches a cold and can’t sing, Hatley’s movie bristles with unforced, unscripted terror. Plus poignancy, as when images of this sick, stick-thin man are juxtaposed against clips of Helm’s early days, singing like a funky crow, cigarette bobbing in his mouth.
The director, ably assisted by cinematographer, Emily Topper, and Levon’s irreplaceable manager, Barbara O’Brien, even manages to make “Amazing Grace” sound new again. When Helm sings about how in heaven “no more will you die,” the song shakes off its PBS cobwebs and really gets you thinking about the afterlife.
Finally, there’s that Hank Williams tune.
A few years back, Helm, along with Bob Dylan and others, inherited partially finished Hank lyrics. Helm, helped by guitarist Larry Campbell, turned his into a real song. Midway through the film, Helm can barely whisper it. Near the end, voice back, he belts that sucker out like it’s 1972—and with honest joy. Here’s a tune sung by a man, once rich, then poor, now somewhere in the middle, doing what he got into this business for—to make good, honest music. Substitute “film” for “music” and you can say the same about Hatley and his quietly remarkable cinematic achievement.