Since Levon Helm’s death last year, much has been written about his enormous musical influence, still echoing loudly in dozens of Americana and roots acts recording today. But when director Jacob Hatley made the doc Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm a few years ago, instead of trotting out highlights of Helm’s considerable legacy (most notably with The Band), he focused on the old man in front of the camera.
The pride of Turkey Scratch, Ark., was about 70 — and looked a decade older — but his backwoods charm, homespun humor and impish grin were as strong as ever, whether he was crooning an old country ballad, toking on a joint or discussing the venomous spurs of the duckbill platypus. That’s not to say the legacy is ignored: Band fans will be thrilled by several rarely seen clips, including a raucous early-’70s “Chest Fever” before a stadium crowd.
But Hartley’s film is ultimately the tale of a gritty, irrepressible character who soldiered on despite the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, betrayal, bankruptcy, even throat cancer. At that late point in Helm’s career, getting enough air vibrating through those ravaged vocal cords to carry a tune was an iffy proposition on any given day — but when he did, as the film shows, it was still positively spine-tingling.
The movie opens today at The Belcourt, and after the 4 p.m. show Sunday there'll be a panel discussion of Helm's career and legacy with director Hatley, Tennessean music writer Peter Cooper, and The Black Crowes drummer (and now sports talk radio host) Steve Gorman.