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One year after death, music legend Levon Helm returns in documentary

By Iain Blair

(Reuters) - Levon Helm, drummer and singer of root rock group The Band, left behind more than a lifetime of music when he died of cancer a year ago.

The four-time Grammy winner also left a documentary film portraying his career, family and friendships that opens in New York City on Friday, exactly a year after his passing.

"Ain't In It For My Health," directed by Jacob Hatley, was begun five years ago and takes an intimate look at the music legend, combining archival footage and photos with interviews with friends, family, collaborators and Helm himself on his farm and home in Woodstock, New York, called "The Barn."

Helm died of cancer on April 19, 2012, at the age of 72, after playing in various versions of The Band until 1999, launching a solo career, acting and fighting back from a first bout of throat cancer in 1998 that robbed him of his voice for a time.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked him in 2008 as one of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Longtime Helm collaborator and musician Larry Campbell said Jacob "was like a fly on the wall, filming Levon's daily life and all of us around him as we worked on music and tried to get his career back on track."

Campbell, who first met Helm in the 1970s, told Reuters the musician "was coming out of a bad financial period, a bad health period, as he'd already battled cancer once, and we all banded together to help him. And (the film) gives a great sense of his personality and magnetism."

SEE WHAT HAPPENS

Those elements provide the driving force behind the film as Helm works on music, reminisces, visits doctors and drives his tractor around his farm where he performed regular "Midnight Ramble" concerts with artists such as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and Dr. John.

"No one had to persuade him to do this," said Campbell, who co-produced with Helms' daughter Amy the singer's 2008 comeback album, "Dirt Farmer," which earned a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.

"Amy called me and said, ‘Come up to the house, let's play some music and see what happens.' That was the genesis of the project, and the idea was just to focus on Levon's musical roots.

"There was no pressure, no deadline, and Levon loved being on camera. He was a real natural, as you can see in the movies he did, like 'Coalminer's Daughter.' So making this film was very much his idea," Campbell said.

The film isn't all sweetness and light, however, and it doesn't hide Helm's bitterness about The Band's eventual breakup and legacy, and his falling out with Robbie Robertson.

"I wasn't there, but he felt very strongly that the five members were all equals, and that guitarist Robbie Robertson ended up making all the money," Campbell said.

"I only heard Levon's side of the story, but he claims that Robbie didn't write all those songs by himself, and that between Robbie, the management and record companies, he was just convinced they'd all gotten completely screwed."

"I don't have an opinion about that," Campbell said. "But I do know that - apart from all his huge talent as a musician - Levon had this amazing depth of thought, which I only began to appreciate over the past decade.

"He was a really smart guy and thought a few steps ahead - but ironically he didn't live that way. He'd think ahead, but only live in the moment.

Campbell described "Ain't In It For My Health" as "definitely bittersweet for me."

"He dodged more bullets than anyone I've ever known in terms of his health, and it all just caught up with him in the end. He was a guy who never did what he was supposed to, and he'd always do what he wasn't supposed to do. That was Levon."

"Ain't In It For My Health" opens on Friday in New York City and then in select U.S. movie theaters.

(Reporting by Iain Blair in Los Angeles, editing by Jill Serjeant and Lisa Shumaker)

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