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Movie Review

Bittersweet film offers a look back at Levon Helm

Levon Helm as seen in director Jacob Hatley’s “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm.”

Ahron R. Foster

Levon Helm as seen in director Jacob Hatley’s “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm.”

Rock ’n’ roll takes a lot out of those in the profession, few more so than the members of the legendary group the Band. Their first releases “Music From Big Pink” (1968) and “The Band” (1969) rank 34th and 45th, respectively, in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 best rock ’n’ roll albums of all time, and the Martin Scorsese documentary “The Last Waltz” (1978), about their final performance, is among the best concert films ever made.

But tragedy has been the lot of most of them. Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 at the age of 42; Rick Danko died of heart failure in 1999 at the age of 56. And Levon Helm, shrunken and ghostlike in the bittersweet, frustratingly impressionistic documentary “Ain’t in It for My Health: a Film About Levon Helm,” has, over the years, battled bankruptcy, illness, and heartbreak.

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Shot by music video director Jacob Hatley, this 2010 film consists of Helm recording a new album and holding bibulous court with cronies at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., telling stories in voice fragile from a battle with throat cancer. He still chain smokes in between excruciating medical procedures, yet by the end of the film he belts out a heartfelt rendition of a restored Hank Williams tune. Other developments in this vérité slice of life include Helm’s excitement about the upcoming Grammys, at which his 2007 album, “Dirt Farmer,” is up for an award. But given his bitterness about the group’s breakup, he’s less enthusiastic about the career achievement Grammy that is being presented to the Band.

Unfortunately, Hatley chooses not to offer much context or background history regarding that or other aspects of Helm’s half-century career, other than archival footage of Helm and the Band in their prime, press clippings, and comments from the Band “biographer,” Barney Hoskyns. Nonetheless, the glimpses of a brilliant musician near the end (Helm died in 2012), reminiscing about Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, or recalling how back home in Turkey Scratch, Ark., they put rings in pigs’ noses to keep them from rooting, will reward fans of Helm, the Band, and rock ’n’ roll.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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