Levon Helm, a former member of the seminal roots-rock group the Band, had a hard life. You could see it in the weathered face of the singer and musician, who died in 2012 at age 71 after years of struggling with, and improbably managing to survive, drug and alcohol addiction, bankruptcy and, for a while, the loss of his voice from throat cancer.
You also could hear the hard life in his voice, which even in its prime had the highly textured, emotive sound of what music critic Jerry Shriver called “the lusty wildcat, the stern Southern preacher, the depleted Confederate soldier, the dirt farmer at the end of his day.”
“Ain’t in It for My Health,” an affectionate documentary by Jacob Hatley, examines Helm’s face and voice up close, at several points following its subject into the doctor’s office, where we’re literally shown Helm’s ravaged vocal cords, via a camera at the end of a flexible tube down the singer’s throat.
Throughout much of the film, which follows Helm as he’s working on his Grammy-winning 2007 album, “Dirt Farmer,” he continues to smoke. That addiction, it seems, was nothing in comparison to Helm’s compulsion to make music.
The film attempts to take the full measure of the man. Hatley covers the Band from its emergence as Bob Dylan’s back-up in 1965 to its 1976 “farewell” concert (immortalized in the Martin Scorsese concert film “The Last Waltz”). The film acknowledges other, standard biopic milestones such as marriage and offspring, but focuses on Helm’s enduring love of making music. Sometimes it’s painful, in ways both good and bad, to listen to him struggle through a song, his voice a hoarse whisper of its former, full-throated rawness.
Helm’s voice, however, had a beautiful, cracked majesty, even in his decline.
Don’t look for any new or deep psychological insights from Helm about his relationships with the members of his old group. Helm speaks sadly of Richard Manuel’s 1986 suicide and, glancingly, of Rick Danko’s 1999 death from heart failure at age 56. But any discussion of resentment about former bandmate Robbie Robertson — who alone got composer royalties for songs that were allegedly written collaboratively — is left to others. So, for the most part, is any mention of Helm’s legacy.
“Ain’t in It for My Health” lets the music do the talking. Despite overtones of morbidity, the tale it tells is one of life, not death. In one sense, it’s as unvarnished and sentiment-free as Helm’s songs. The larger meaning, to the extent that there is any, is not in the lyrics, but in their aching, world-weary delivery.
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains obscenity and drug references. 83 minutes.