I SUPPOSE I wanted more from a Levon Helm documentary. An Arkansan drummer with a rich, lonesome voice—and the sole American in the otherwise Canadian outfit the Band—Helm's legacy looms. He fronted an early version of the Band called Levon and the Hawks; he played drums during Bob Dylan's most vital period; he inspired Elton John's "Levon"; he played Loretta Lynn's dad in Coal Miner's Daughter. And there are his years with the Band, which resulted in two perfect albums, with songs like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" bearing Helm's unmistakable, heart-piercing voice.
You'll need to bring all this background info along with you to Ain't in It for My Health. Shot over a couple years before Helm's death from cancer in 2012, the film offers a remarkably intimate look at his final years. We go into his Woodstock home, get to know his family, tag along on visits to the hospital. The film briefly touches upon his health issues—Helm first was stricken by throat cancer in the '90s and lost his voice completely, then miraculously regained it. Ain't in It for My Health doesn't provide this fascinating context. Nor does it do more than touch upon Helm's series of "Midnight Ramble" concerts, which he staged semi-regularly in his barn. These are already the stuff of legend, but we don't get to see much.
Instead, we have a snapshot of Helm in his final years, at times acting perfectly spry and others looking worn and gray. We get a glimpse into his difficulty with the Band's legacy—specifically, Robbie Robertson, who earned the lion's share of royalties, and the tragic, premature deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. But it's not enough. There's a full life story to be told, and Ain't in It for My Health doesn't work as more than a quick flip through the final chapters.
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