Living legend Levon Helm finally gets his close-up in 'Health'
If I only had time to ask one question of Levon Helm, the laconic heart and soul of the Band, it would probably be -- so what the hell happened between you and Robbie Robertson?
As anyone who has followed the brief, meteoric career of one of our most original and influential rock bands -- not to mention Bob Dylan's best backup band ever -- could tell you, Helm and Band co-founder Robertson had a nasty falling out, the bitterness and bad feelings of which have continued to today, long past the group's 1976 breakup chronicled in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz."
Of course, I'm a journalist, not a documentarian, but it still bugs me that Jacob Hatley, the director of "Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm," which plays Friday at 9:45 p.m. at the Los Angeles Film Festival, never got around to putting the question to Helm. If he did, he certainly never offers us any evidence of it. That proves to be the one gaping hole in what is an otherwise incredibly likable, not to mention intimate portrait of an aging rock icon who, despite some nasty battle scars and health scares, is still making wonderful music well into his 70s. (If you miss the movie and want to see Helm in person, he'll be at the Greek Theater in L.A. on Aug. 15.)
Even though the Band made quintessentially heartland American music, everyone in the group was Canadian except for Helm, a small-town Arkansas boy whose early life provided much of the down-home authenticity for Robertson's songwriting, not to mention the Cotton Belt grit that you hear in songs such as "The Night We Drove Dixie Down." In the film, Helm is still a classic, if hippie-ish good old boy, with as much connection to the earth as any Delta bluesman. If he looks happy when he's singing, he looks even happier when he's driving a tractor through a friend's corn field in Woodstock, N.Y., where Helm has made his home for years.
We're lucky to still have Helm around. He got throat cancer in the late 1990s, underwent radiation therapy and lost his voice. The voice has slowly come back, but when we hear him sing now, it's more of a raspy drawl, stronger some days and perilously weak on others. Helm clearly gave Hatley full access, so we see him everywhere -- smoking pot after a show with a starry-eyed Billy Bob Thornton (who's clearly a smitten fan, just like the rest of us), hanging out around the house, deciding against going to L.A. for the Grammys (he won anyway) and even going to the throat doctor when his voice gives out in the middle of a concert tour.
Helm is what you'd call indomitable. He's a little frail and it worries you that with his medical history he's still smoking and drinking up a storm, but it's nice to see him making some rent money performing at his now traditional Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, which look like so much fun that you want to book a flight to upstate New York tomorrow. It's clear that Helm, like so many musicians of his generation, is bitter about the way the industry treated him, not to mention the way things turned out with the Band, which lost two of its members to drugs and drink, while Robertson ended up with pretty much all of the publishing royalty dough as the group's primary songwriter.
Hatley puts a Band biographer on camera to walk us through some of the particulars, and we get to see some astounding vintage footage of the group performing "The Weight" in their Woodstock rehearsal space, their celestial harmonies made all the more poignant by the way Hatley juxtaposes it with a Helm trip to the throat doctor. I still wish the filmmaker had managed to get Levon to open up a little more about the demons and divisions that clearly still haunt him. But Helm is clearly not a man prone to confessions. So I'll happily settle for what we get from "Ain't in It for My Health," which like many of the great songs Helm performed with the Band, nicely balances the bitter with the sweet.
Photo: Levon Helm performing at one of his Midnight Rambles in Woodstock. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times