Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm

A rock documentary works for me if it does nothing more than offer an invitation into a musician's life. That's it.
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When you make a documentary about Levon Helm, you root for things not to happen. You root against plot, conflict, inciting incidents, obstacles, and dramatic questions. Basically, you root against anything that could undermine the following shooting conditions: it's late and you're sitting around Levon's kitchen table. It has a hazy glow about it. Crew and cast have slept until at least 11 am that morning. Nothing is scheduled for the next day. Your mind is limber.

So Levon just starts talking.

He describes the duckbilled platypus ("the absolute baddest thing you can get a hold of"), he reenacts his favorite scene from The Wild Bunch, he talks about an old boy he once knew who rode his mule into town to go to a dance and on the way swapped his .38 for a .22 because you just can't move around with a big .38 in your pocket. He remembers living in hotels in Canada, the simple existence when you didn't owe anybody anything and you told the maids to just leave some towels, and you spent your days watching Peter Cushing double features and your nights playing hard driving rockabilly music.

It's loose but goddamn it's vivid. And you realize you want your whole film to be nothing more than this: an A, number 1 certified hangout movie. A movie, as Howard Hawks put it, that's no plot, just character.

But then things do happen. Levon records his first record in twenty-five years. He loses his voice. He runs into serious financial trouble. He is told he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for The Band and he rejects it. Suddenly, events loaded with dramatic potential swarm around you. Stuff documentary filmmakers supposedly dream about. But the thing that keeps nagging at you: "What about the duckbilled platypus?"

That was the real challenge in directing the film. How do we make a relaxed character piece that still embraces the dramatic events that occurred during the shoot and gives the appropriate amount of historical context? I frankly have no idea how we managed to walk that line. I will say that if we were faced with the choice between a sequence about The Band's importance to the evolution of Americana versus Levon explaining how to properly hog a catfish, then you can bet the farm that we went with the catfish.

A rock documentary works for me if it does nothing more than offer an invitation into a musician's life. That's it. History lessons intercut with praise and platitudes from various celebrities and a few glorified performances are good reasons that the rock doc is often a pejorative genre classification. This is the one thing Levon and I agreed on going into the documentary. As much as possible this was going to feel like a narrative film, comprised not of a series of sound bites but with real scenes that start in one direction and end up heading in another. I also began to feel early on that if Levon had never been in The Band, if he had never been a musician, if he were just a bartender in Arkansas, somebody should still make a documentary about him.

Right now it's early and I'm in Woodstock, typing this out in a sleeping bag in Levon's barn. There are big windows up here in the loft and they face east and the sun comes pouring in on you in the morning. Last night Levon watched the film for the first time. It's heavy and intimate in spots and it's not a puff piece, so I did plenty of pacing and adjusting levels and drinking during what turned out to be a long eighty-six minutes. After it was over we went back to his kitchen table, where the light still has that hazy glow, and talked about his dogs and Loretta Lynn and sushi and then Amy, his daughter, sang a few verses of Willin' to him and suggested it might be a good fit for the band. We said goodnight and he told me he thought we had the film by the ears. That's all he said. And then I picked up the video camera and shot some more footage and listened to some more music.

It took us three years to make this film and SXSW lasts for about a week. If you were going to try and squeeze into a seven-day celebration something that has been three years in the making, Austin is probably the place to attempt it. They've banned smoking in the bars but at least you can drink in the theaters. Here's to rock and roll, and here's to cinema.

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