Jacob Hatley’s documentary about the late Levon Helm (who died in 2012) is a flinty valedictory to a rough-hewn but cagey and soulful musician.
“Ain’t In It For My Health” is a title that comes with two meanings. One is the issue of Helm’s mortality, on painful display in this film, which was shot around 2007-09, when he was recovering from a bout with throat cancer and in the process of recording “Electric Dirt,” an album that would ultimately win him a Grammy. The cancer eventually would recur and kill him but, during much of the filming here, he seems game and ready to play music.
The other meaning comes in a story later in the film, in which Robbie Robertson (who was seen as the creative engine within The Band) decided to quit touring and recording with the group, citing concerns about the health of some of the other members. When told of Robertson’s remark, Helm replied, “Ain’t in it for my health.”
In this film, his voice is a thread of its former self; that throaty Arkansas yelp has been reduced, in the way that wine is reduced for cooking. What’s left is a stark, earthy essence, perhaps not as strong but no less determined.
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