Review: 'Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm', directed by Jacob Hatley

With probably one of the least interesting yet somehow creative names, The Band is regarded as one of the pioneers of rock and roll music before rock and roll music became a big deal. They produced three albums together before the band broke up in 1976. However, Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm turns its focus onto Levon Helm, former drummer and vocalist for The Band. Putting the focus on Helm’s music career, Ain’t in It for My Health is a long and drawn out documentary about the life and music of Levon Helm. The film is uninspiring, lacking in personality and slightly hollow. 

Director Jacob Hatley and his crew spend time with Levon Helm while in the studio, on tour, and even at Helm’s home in Woodstock, NY where the famous Midnight Ramble concerts take place. Hatley mainly lets Helm do his thing, which is playing music the majority of the time. But he does get a little more up close and personal with Helm. The documentary becomes almost like some sort of day in the life as Helm allows us to experience his doctor appointments, his turmoil over the Grammy Achievement Award for his work with The Band, and candid moments of working on his land and in the studio.

At an eighty two minute running time and with such history regarding Levon Helm’s music career and achievements, you’d think that the time would have flown by in no time. This is not the case with Ain’t in It for My Health. The main problem with the film is that it lacked any kind of sentiment or emotion. It also lacked any real intimacy in regards to Levon Helm. Hatley seems to focus more on the music than on the man himself and this focus is underwhelming and a missed opportunity to see the man behind the musician.

Hatley takes us on a journey through Helm’s past and present music career and gets in the studio with him for his first album in 25 years. The film is interspersed with footage of The Band from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Helm’s current projects, and storytelling at his home table. There is no real flow to the film and Hatley jumps between several things and times without any distinct order. While this usually works in certain settings, this only leads to a lack of direction on Hatley’s part and viewers will tire of watching after a while.

The most intriguing part comes from the perspective of a biographer, whose insight into The Band, their career, and their inner workings provides a more intimate look about Levon Helm and how he comes to be where he is musically and financially. It’s a feat the director never accomplishes. The film plays out like an audience member seated far from the stage at one of Helm’s concerts. You can see the stage, but it’s more of a tiny spec because nothing is clear. 

Hatley achieves an outlined version of Helm's life and career, but always remains on the outside, never daring to take a closer look or get closer to a musical legend. Ain't in It for My Health is impersonal and doesn't allow the audience to peel back the layers of Helm's life. The music legend is fascinating but Hatley steps back and what's left is a missed opportunity to delve deeper and get a more intimate portrait of the man behind the drums.