“Ain’t in It for My Health,” the new documentary about the late, great Levon Helm, plays the Little Rock Film Festival on Thursday, May 16. It’s going to be well-received. I got to see an advance screener of it, and I can all but guarantee anyone with even a passing affinity for Levon will eat it up.
It’s not a typical documentary profile. There’s a bit of archival footage and some reminiscing, but most of the film takes place closer to the present, during the nearly three years filmmaker Jacob Hatley shadowed Levon (for a time, living in his Woodstock barn). It covers what might be called the beginning of Levon’s comeback, following his recovery from throat cancer (though it seems to be recurring in the film), when “Dirt Farmer,” his first album in 25 years, was recorded and the “Midnight Ramble” concerts at his Woodstock farm were in full swing. But most of all, as Hatley said when I interviewed him yesterday, “it’s a hangout movie.” Levon swapping stories with Billy Bob Thornton. Levon and frequent collaborator Larry Campbell humming and strumming, trying to puzzle out how to complete a long-lost unfinished Hank Williams song. Levon and his daughter Amy casually serenading Amy’s new baby with “In the Pines.”
It’s a collection of small moments that feel honest. You see some of the bitterness Levon felt about how The Band fell apart and how its legacy has been handled. Mostly, though, it’s a portrait of a warm, gregarious man with a gift for telling stories and singing songs. It’s filmed almost entirely in Woodstock, but Levon’s Turkey Scratch roots always show.
Below is a condensed version of my interview with Hatley.
“Ain’t in It for My Health” screens at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday at The Rep.
What was your initial pitch to Levon? You were with him making a music video, right?
Yeah. It was a pretty easy pitch. It didn’t really come by in a form of a “let’s sit down and let me run something by you.” I was up there, and we had a camera and we’d just break it out between takes of the music video. We did a 20-minute short film/music video thing. The idea was to do a series of vignettes that featured Levon as a personality as an actor and intercut those with him performing a couple of the songs music video style. It’s called “Only Halfway Home.”
When we were filming the stuff between takes, it was so much more fun than filming the music video. A lot of it was Levon hanging out with a couple of sweet corn farmers who live down the road from him, sitting around talking politics. Him hanging out in a seedy motel, playing music and telling stories. We had so much fun during that part, and Levon, I think, more than anyone else had a blast. Levon is an actor. He’s a performer. It felt good to have cameras around and for him to be back in front of it. He was enjoying it as much as we were.
You lived in Woodstock for several years while making the film. When you ran out of money, you lived in Levon’s barn for a while?
That’s right, but when you say “barn,” people think we were really roughing it. But if you’ve seen his barn, it was pretty good living.