Levon's last waltz
May 2, 2014
Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm is a grim movie, in spite of the fact that its subject has a smile that lights up the screen and a capacity for laughter, even in the face of catastrophe.
Levon Helm was, of course, the drummer, occasional mandolin or guitar player and one of three great singers in the only band that ever deserved to be called The Band.
For a music-hungry teen in the early 70s, hearing their first three albums – Music From Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright – with their expansive vocabulary of mountain music, gospel, jazz, blues and vintage rock’n’roll, opened a door to a world of American music I barely knew existed. It was a world I’d heard only second-hand hints of in the Beatles, Stones and the other British bands I’d grown up on. It seemed rich and deep and somehow more grownup that any pop I’d ever heard before. Thanks to The Band, I haven’t stopped exploring that world to this day.
But The Band was ancient history by the time this movie was made. Whether he realised it or not, what film maker Jacob Hatley wound up documenting were the last years of Helm’s musical life. The film was completed in 2010; Helm died in 2012.
Though Helm appeared on the screen a few times over the years (he had small acting roles in good films Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Right Stuff and proved to be a natural), his greatest screen moment was The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of The Band’s final concert in 1976. The only Southerner in a group whose music seemed to epitomise the American south, Helm came across in Scorsese’s portrait as a wily and charming musical dynamo. Watch and wonder as he does the work of at least two musicians, drumming and singing his heart out simultaneously, in ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and ‘Up On Cripple Creek’.
Three decades later, the new film finds Helm playing in a barn. It all seems a long way from the glamorous trappings of The Last Waltz. Through conversations with his daughter, ex-wife, assorted friends and Levon himself, we learn of bankruptcy, drug problems and serious illness, all of which have beset Helm in the years since The Last Waltz.
One of the most tragic things is that, for much of the film, this extraordinary singer literally has no voice. We learn he has had radiotherapy for throat cancer, leaving him with a tattered instrument that frequently disappears altogether. In spite of this, he is rarely without either a cigarette or a joint in his mouth.
Though Helm has an engaging chuckle which he unleashes often, showing an admirable appreciation of life’s ironies, it becomes apparent as the film unfolds that he carries a deep bitterness about certain aspects of The Band’s history; specifically the way the group’s royalties were apportioned, and how, at the instigation of guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson, the whole thing was brought to an end. When he is asked to attend the Grammys on the occasion of The Band being presented with a lifetime achievement award, he only mutters darkly about how it won’t help Rick and Richard. That’s Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, his two fellow singers from The Band. Manuel committed suicide in a motel room in 1986; Danko died a decade later, after years of drug abuse. One gets the strong sense that Helm blames their demises on the same dark forces that drive his own bitterness.
There are a few beautiful moments. Helm seems to have a close loving relationship with Amy Helm, his daughter (also an excellent singer.) For much of the film she is pregnant; in one of the last scenes we see Levon serenading her newborn child.
And there are still flashes of musical fire. A solo version of Randy Newman’s ‘Kingfish’ is an object lesson in how to live a lyric, and a demonstration of what makes Helm such a great singer. Helm clearly loves to make music more than anything, and you sense he’d keep doing it in whatever way he could, whether he lost his voice or his limbs.
But these uplifting moments are outweighed by sadder images, like Elizabeth Danko (widow of Rick) shuffling around in a retirement home, or Levon in the doctor’s surgery, inspecting scans of his scarred throat.
But my personal low point was hearing Levon say of The Band that by their third record ‘it was pretty much over’. For me, those records were the beginning!