Alternately, Judge Clark Douglas took up reviewing specifically for health reasons.
A legend's creative process at work.
There's a moment midway through Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm in which the title character delivers an exquisitely soulful cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." It's a spellbinding sequence, as Helm works his southern magic on the familiar tune and the cameras capture every little expression on his weathered face. The film contains several moments of similar power, as this understated documentary recognizes the value of simply sitting back and observing but also goes out its way to be more cinematic than the average film of this sort. On a technical and musical level, this is a gorgeous film that places the spotlight on a deserving central subject. As such, it's all the more frustrating that the movie never quite manages to find the intimacy with the late Mr. Helm that it so evidently desires.
For those who aren't aware of Levon Helm's career, he's been at the center of one of the music industry's most legendary feuds for decades. The esteemed group known as The Band underwent a number of different shifts over the years, but the "classic" lineup performed together between 1968-1976. Though the group never had an official frontman, Helm stood out from the other members due to both the exceptional quality of his voice and the fact that he was the only American member of the group (particularly important given The Band's southern roots rock foundation). For a few precious years, The Band produced some of the finest music of the era, but it wasn't long before rifts began to form. The core group's final performance was documented in the great Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz, a tremendous concert that featured stunning guestg appearances from the likes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and other iconic figures of the roots rock scene. After that magnificent show was concluded, Helm and The Band's primary songwriter Robbie Robertson parted ways permanently. The resentment between the two of them only seemed to grow over the years, as legal and financial disputes made the notion of a reunion seem increasingly impossible. When the group was inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, Helm didn't attend the ceremony.
Every now and then, it seems as if Helm might be on the verge of really opening up about the subject. The person who comes the closest to getting any information out of him is Billy Bob Thornton, who hangs out with Helm after a concert and quietly presses the musician for information on his early days. Helm tosses out a few stray thoughts, but then purses his lips and turns silent. Helm is excited when informed that he's received a Grammy nomination for his album "Dirt Farmer," but he's far more cautious about the news that The Band is also receiving a lifetime achievement award. "Lifetime achievement…that's just a lot of bull#$@%," he mutters. Time after time, we see the wheels spinning in Helm's mind, but either he was unwilling to go deeper or the filmmakers were unwilling to press their luck. As a result, we're left with a documentary that features gorgeous visuals and gorgeous music while keeping us at arm's length from its subject.
It doesn't take long to discover the reason for the film's title: much of the documentary focuses on Helm's struggles to retain his voice, and we're given a no-holds-barred look at some unpleasant medical procedures he submits himself to. Helm was fairly courageous in letting the filmmakers see him at his weakest, but there's honestly not much of a story here. He's feeling rough, he sees different doctors, he loses his voice and…well, he eventually gets better (the filming took place about three years before Helm's passing). Despite its occasional flirtations with delivering something resembling drama, the film is at its best when it's observing the Levon Helm that the public already knows—the iconic performer and the genial storyteller. If you're a fan, there's plenty here that makes the doc worth a watch, but those seeking greater insight into Helm's life will likely come away disappointed.
Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm (Blu-ray) has received a very satisfactory 1080p/1.85:1 transfer from the good folks at Kino Lorber. As I noted earlier, it really is a terrific-looking movie from top to bottom, and the strong cinematography is accentuated by stellar detail and depth. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, really enhancing the numerous musical performances littered throughout the doc. Dialogue is always clean and clear, too. Supplements are disappointingly thin, though: some deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
While Ain't in It for My Health may not be as significant or revealing as I was hoping it would be, it's still a solid hangout documentary that is generally pleasant and engaging.
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