One night in August 2008, Levon Helm sat in his kitchen in Woodstock, New York after playing a Midnight Ramble gig in his barn, smoking some "northern Californian organic" and sharing stories with friends like Billy Bob Thornton and Chris Robinson. When the party cleared out and only Thornton was left, the actor raised the subject of the Band and the backlash they received from critics starting with their third album, Stage Fright.
"On that third Band record, it was pretty much over," Helm replies, his voice filling with venom. "It was obviously a goddamn screw-job. The credits and the money and everything was all screwed up. After that, it was 'the Band plays your favorites,' 'the Band live somewhere,' because we couldn't get in there and collaborate anymore. It lasted about five years, but it was over after that second record."
It's just one riveting moment in Ain't in It for My Health, the new documentary directed by Jacob Hatley that captures Helm's late-career Renaissance before his death last year: the years in which he regained his voice after battling throat cancer, released his first music in decades, staged his weekly Midnight Ramble gigs in his barn, dug himself out of a financial hole and became a grandfather.
The film first screened in 2010 but, due to legalities, is only now seeing wider release, with a DVD planned for this summer. Darkness hangs over it; Helm vents anger for being recognized for a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award only after the deaths of bandmates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko – "It's engineered by the suits, a goddamn sales gimmick," he says – and experiences the return of serious throat issues over multiple doctor's visits.
"This sense of mortality was present from the beginning," Hatley tells Rolling Stone. "He was not going to go quietly into the night."
Still, this is a far different Helm than the reserved personality seen in The Last Waltz. Now he can be seen holding court with friends, reminiscing about partying with the British band Procol Harum in the Sixties and hanging out with a pissed-off Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, goofing around on a tractor in a field and singing a beautiful mandolin rendition of "In the Pines" to his new grandson. It is one of the most moving music documentaries in recent memory.
Hatley met Helm when he went to film a music video promoting Dirt Farmer, his first album in more than 20 years. "I came up to do a two-day shoot and I thought, 'This is not the way Levon Helm should be resurfacing," says Hatley. "I said, 'Levon, there's so much going on up here, why don't we stick around?' We shot for awhile before we even discussed what this was and then went back to L.A. Then my phone rang one day and he said, 'Do you want to go to the doctor with me?' That's when I knew he was serious: we're going to make a real movie."
Hatley moved into a nearby house with a small crew and when they ran out of money, Hatley moved into Helm's house. He captured hundreds of hours of footage over three years, including Helm lounging around the house in his bathrobe and disdainfully watching President Bush's final State of the Union, and out on tour as he struggled with losing his voice again. "He never told us to stop filming. But the flip side was, as soon as you started to force anything or or design a scene or interview, he'd completely shut off. He'd walk away and retreat to his room."
But Helm was also hospitable. "He would come in occasionally [and say], 'You guys need anything?' or slip me a couple hundred bucks. At one o'clock in the morning, I was trying to go to sleep and he came in and said, 'Wake up in the morning and go to the feed store and get some deer corn and lay it out all in the yard. I promise you within 48 hours, we got a bear in the woods and you'll get a bear in your movie.' That kind of shit would happen all the time. The idea he could produce a bear for our movie thrilled him."
The ghosts of the Band are everpresent. After we see Helm working on finishing lyrics to an old Hank Williams song with bandmate Larry Campbell, the film cuts to late bassist Rick Danko's wife Elizabeth in a modest retirement home, thumbing through old photos. "To me, that's the emotional core of the movie: where Levon had just finished writing this Hank Williams song. They're singing it as we see Elizabeth Danko in this retirement home," says Hatley. "If Levon's voice hadn't come back, this could be Levon."
Helm became so used to the cameras, he never wanted it to end. "When I went to him at the end of the process and said, 'I think we're finished; we have a film,' he seemed very disappointed. It seemed like something he never thought about, this ending up as a finished piece. He just thought of having these tapes of his years when he's able to sing again and has a grandchild and friends and bandmates that he loves. I think part of him creatively, its always about the path, never the destination, the getting-there. Once you have this final product, this is it, that doesn't interest him. I think he would've wanted me to film for the next three or four years."