Loose and ragtag, stirring and poignant, the documentary “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” proves a fitting tribute to its late star, perhaps best known as the singer-drummer of the influential late-1960s and ‘70s folk-rock group the Band.
Shot mainly in and around Helm’s Woodstock, N.Y., farmhouse and recording studio, director Jacob Hatley’s twilight-time portrait evocatively captures the ailing yet genial musician — he died of throat cancer last year at age 71 — as he assembles his comeback album, the Grammy Award-winning “Dirt Farmer.”
Though the movie often feels more cinema verité snapshot than keenly shaped biopic, traditional elements include vivid interviews with Helm’s family and friends, Band vocalist-bassist Rick Danko’s widow, Band biographer Barney Hoskyns and others, as well as personal data (including bits on Helm’s drug-fueled heyday and his creative and financial issues with the Band) and memorable archival clips such as the Band performing its classic “The Weight” at 1969’s Woodstock Festival and an appearance that same year on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
But it’s the more intimate, unguarded moments with the Arkansas-born Helm that stand out: hashing out song lyrics with friend-collaborator Larry Campbell, coping with an erratic voice damaged by cancer-related radiation therapy, beholding a new grandchild, and an array of random musings (“It was over after that second record,” he says of the Band).
Helm’s film acting resumé (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff”) is oddly ignored here, as is any discussion of Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 1978 documentary “The Last Waltz,” which immortalized the Band’s farewell performance (Helm reportedly detested the movie). Otherwise, “Ain’t in It” offers a warm and largely satisfying look at a man and his music and, for some, the end of an era.
“Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. Playing at Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Saturday and Sunday mornings only at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.