Woodstock, NY has been the setting for about as much music history as any single place one could ever imagine pointing out on a map. However, in the new documentary I Ain’t In It For My Heath: A Film About Levon Helm, it plays as the primary setting for one of the most engaging and evocative music documentaries of the year.
Woodstock is now home to the legendary Levon Helm, who himself rose to fame in the late 1960s as the drummer for one of music’s most iconic groups, The Band. For an eight year stretch from 1968 to 1976, The Band went from touring with one Bob Dylan to launching their own tour as one of the biggest groups in the world. However, near the turn of the century, Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer and risked losing his voice to start treatment to keep him alive. Ultimately losing much of his voice through treatment and a procedure that did ultimately remove the tumor, Helm began drumming for his daughter, only to begin getting some of his voice back, albeit in a husky variation.
Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, this brazenly poetic meditation on the late, great Levon Helm, who the world lost last year when he was just 71, is as vital a look at an artist’s strive to create. Without meditating too much on his career or on The Band’s rise and fall, the film is simply a look at a man who feels it in his bones, the need to create.
First and foremost, this film is absolutely breathtaking to look at. Director Jacob Hatley crafts not only a love letter to a late musical icon, but also a poetic character study that owes as much to great music documentaries as it does to great pieces of pure Americana. With a lively sense of energy , the film has an aesthetic seemingly ripped right out of one of Helm’s or The Band’s classic cuts. With some sequences seemingly shot in cartoonishly grainy 16mm, I say cartoonishly because film has no right looking this alive and this tactile, this film is inarguably one of the prettiest and most loving documentaries you’ll find this year.
And saying it’s a documentary doesn’t seem to do it all the justice it truly deserves. Seemingly owing a great deal to Alan King’s “Reality Dramas,” I Ain’t In It For My Health is a truly energetic and heartfelt character piece. Levon Helm himself is kinetic and magnetic, and while there are interviews with various important players in his life, they aren’t the reason gravity is given to this picture, nor the archival footage sprinkled in throughout the picture. Instead, Helm himself is all the reason in the world to become deeply enraptured in this story. The four-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer not only feels a compulsion deep within him to perform music, but it, as you see here, had gotten to a point where he needed to do so to, well, stay alive.
Shot over the span of roughly two years, the film primarily looks at Helm trying to make a comeback of sorts, what with a new album and tour, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. We are given insights into some of Helm’s true creative process, which given his legendary status within the music industry, is something to be cherished and beloved. You see him enthralled by a new grandchild, and you see him trying to work out new music and lyrics, all over a brisk and perfectly paced 83 minutes. The film never feels any grander than a character piece, just one that happens to be focused on one of the most influential drummers of all time. With generations of musicians still feelingly inspired by his work (as seen by a touching segment set in his doctor’s office), Levon Helm’s life may have ended last year, but with a canon of iconic music and this loving documentary to keep his name in the zeitgeist, his impact will reverberate through the musical landscape for generations to come.
New to Blu-ray, the film looks and sounds breathtaking on Blu-ray. Kino released the film on DVD and Blu-ray and the transfer (particularly the grainier moments) are as stunning and awe-inspiring as anything you’ll find in non-fiction cinema this year. The release is relatively bare bones, only coming with a handful of deleted scenes and a trailer, but the film itself is reason enough to grab this film off the store shelves.