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Interview: Jacob Hatley on Levon Helm

By Margaret Barton-Fumo on April 19, 2013

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A few years before he succumbed to throat cancer in April of 2012, Levon Helm proudly exclaimed to filmmaker Jacob Hatley: “I ain’t in it for my health!” If he were, he would have sang in a church choir instead of touring with Bob Dylan, drumming and singing for years in The Band, and capping it all off with a drug-fueled performance for Scorsese in The Last Waltz. While many of his contemporaries (and two of his Band-mates, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko) never made it into their golden years, Helm toned it down but kept going, playing music, puffing on joints, and telling stories up until his death at the age of 71.

Ain't in It for My Health, Hatley’s portrait of Helm, is intimate and unsentimental, clearly the result of an earned trust between the filmmaker and his subject. Hatley slept on the floor of Levon’s barn in Woodstock for months at a time over the course of two years, and his perspective in the film is more guest-at-the-kitchen-table than fly on the wall. He rarely ingratiates himself or crosses the line with leading questions, choosing instead to sit back and observe Levon for what he is, an innately talented entertainer and an immensely likeable guy.

Shuffling around in his bathrobe, frail and often hoarse, Helm remains an energetic musician and performer. He can still drive a tight donut on his tractor, but he also declines an invitation to perform an encore at a big concert when he knows he’s beat. The documentary complements his personality well, without frills or wordy digressions. Who cares about a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys when as Levon says, it’s all bullshit “engineered by the suits”? Biographer Barney Hoskyns gives us a concise overview of The Band, letting us know that Levon was the only American (and Southerner) in a country rock band full of Canadians. This wasn’t the only Canuck-country group at the time (think of the Allman Brothers’ beef with Neil Young over his song “Southern Man”), but it certainly sheds some light on Helm’s irritation with his Band-mate Robbie Robertson for not sharing his songwriting credits—and in turn, Helm is shut out from collecting lucrative publishing royalties for songs that thrived on his distinctive input.

It’s fortunate that Hatley provides this information as a side note only, focusing instead on Levon’s anecdotes about dosing the brown acid at Woodstock, the danger of deadly platypuses, ringing hogs and playing under the porch as a kid, and the fundraising concerts held in Levon’s barn for his mounting bills, aptly labeled the “Midnight Rambles.” Now that he’s gone, Ain’t in It for My Health is the most revelatory and honest documentation of Helm’s last years that anyone could ask for. Speaking over the phone in his own Southern drawl, director Jacob Hatley answered a few questions about the making of the film, which is playing for a week at Cinema Village in New York on the first anniversary of Helm’s death.

Tell me about your crew. This is a very simple film. It looks as if there were only two or three of you?

Yeah. And they’re all guys (and girls) I went to film school with. Emily Topper shot the film, Phil Davis was the associate producer and did the sound, and then we had Mary [Posatko], who was our producer and was there a lot. And that was it. This was not a film that was made on a schedule. It was not a film that had shooting days necessarily. That was never the case. We just tried to be around as much as possible. Emily would hold the camera on her shoulder, and I would hold the camera, even when we weren’t filming so that when people saw us we always had a camera and they would forget about the fact that we were shooting a film.

Were you using a small camera?

Well, it was a video camera, but this was before the DSLRs had even come out...

You can tell that whoever is holding the camera is a part of the group, a part of the house there. But it’s nice that you don’t really butt in and ask questions. Were there instances where you felt like you had to hold back?

No. I mean, Errol Morris is one thing—he’s amazing. It doesn’t get any better than that guy. But for the most part, we all consider ourselves narrative filmmakers. What’s interesting to me are scenes, documentaries that have scenes. You have a scene with three people that starts off in one direction and ends up going in another. I don’t know why documentaries are so dogmatic. They bear this burden of having to be educational, or there’s something academic about it. I think the best documentaries are the ones that work like narrative films, and things just happen that you could never script in a million years, like in the Maysles Brothers’ films. But to answer your question, there were things that I knew we had to address in this film and that I wanted to ask and sometimes I did ask—sometimes it worked and most of the time it didn’t. It just became kind of stilted and forced. The trick was to kind of steer the conversations in the right direction.

Were you the one who asked Levon if he was surprised when Richard Manuel died?

Yep, that’s me!

He took it in stride. Obviously you were part of the conversation there. And it just worked, I think.

Yeah, that was just me, Levon, and Larry. I was holding the camera, had a mike on top of the camera and it was just the three of us. He’s talking to me, and I’m trying to look into his eyes while trying to make sure the frame is right! [Laughs.]

He does look at the camera a couple of times...

He’s looking at me! But it seems like he’s looking at the camera, so it’s great.

I like how you record things as they happen, and because of that, there’s a focus on his singing as he goes to the doctor, loses his voice, and then gets it back. Some of his other talents like acting and drumming aren’t really addressed. Personally I would have enjoyed a little discussion of his drumming, but I’m glad you didn’t force it.

Yeah, well, how many times can you hear someone interviewed say “Levon Helm is a great drummer.” It’s like, we know he’s great, just watch him play.

The part of the film where Levon and Larry Campbell work on that unfinished Hank Williams song is interesting. It’s significant that you show their writing process, given the conflict between Robbie Robertson and Levon over who received songwriting credits for The Band...

[Laughs.] You picked up on that! Well, that’s very nice to hear. I think it’s the emotional core of the movie. That footage is the element of the film I’m most proud of, and I feel like it speaks for itself.

It looks as if Larry Campbell does write the lyrics for the most part—and whoever writes the lyrics is often technically considered the songwriter—but when it comes time to write the music Levon just rolls it out. He’s obviously writing the song too. They write the song together and you get a peek into the process, and then you can maybe imagine what happened before...

I know, I know. That’s a great point and I agree completely.

Can you talk a little about Larry Campbell? He’s an integral character in the film.

Well, I don’t know what to say about Larry other than the movie isn’t possible without him. In a way he’s like Sancho Panza. When we started work on the film a lot of people were very protective of Levon from the beginning. We had to win over a lot of people and it took a while to earn their trust. But when we met Larry he just completely believed in us from the first day. So during many of those conversations, Larry was just there. I think Larry understood what kind of film we were making. I can’t say anything bad about him. He’s a saint, a perfect human being and he’s a brilliant musician. I love him.

The other person I wanted to ask you about is Rick Danko’s widow, Elizabeth Grafton. She’s the only other subject in the film, the only other person who’s given a (brief) backstory. Did you pick her, or did she reveal herself to be interesting enough that you wanted to dig deeper into her story?

The latter, for sure. We did shoot a few other interviews, just because we’d been sitting around for so long and I wanted something to do. Somebody would come by and we’d interview them. I mean, we interviewed Garth [Hudson, the singular and highly entertaining organ player for The Band], and we just didn’t use it. But Elizabeth came by and immediately she was so frank. You know, this is not a puff piece, and I liked the way that she spoke and there wasn’t any kind of sentimentality to her.

My thinking was here’s the flip side of the rock 'n’ roll coin. You go from riding in these jet airplanes, and then this is what happens when rock stars do not die young. When Levon’s singing a song about it, we intercut to her because this could very easily have been Levon. If he didn’t get his voice back, didn’t have anyone come to help him, who knows.

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