Levon Helm was one of rock's great vocalists, one of its more articulate drummers and, as anyone who saw "The Last Waltz" can attest, a thoroughly charismatic character. So he makes a meaty subject for director Jacob Hatley's "Ain't in It for My Health," which captured Helm just before his death last April from throat cancer, something he fought -- as the movie shows -- valiantly, and with good humor. It was a colorful life, and Hatley covers most of it -- the early days in rockabilly, the forming of The Band after its members' stint as Bob Dylan's backup group; drugs; bankruptcy; cancer, unpaid royalties and an epic case of resentment against ex-bandmate Robbie Robertson. It's the stuff of an outsized life, and Hatley gets a lot of it right.
There are major omissions, though -- nothing from "The Last Waltz," for instance, or any of Helm's several actorly turns, such as Sissy Spacek's father in "Coal Miner's Daughter." Although Helm performs, there's a limited amount of Band music (although rights issues may well have been the cause).
What's more sorely missing is a sense of the man who lay behind the persona. We get plenty of Helm the wisecracking southern boy who lived hard and sang hard, but despite some great access, Hatley never cracks the veneer. Nor does he get his subject to address directly what's eating at him, like the sense he was ripped off by Robertson, and that his bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, both dead, were treated even more shabbily than he. Hatley is lucky to speak with Danko's widow, Elizabeth, who saw a lot, and knows how to put it in perspective. That she's more forthcoming than the movie's subject is why "Ain't in It for My Health" falls short of what it might have been.
PLOT Documentary about rock and roll pioneer Levon Helm
BOTTOM LINE Less than satisfying treatment of beloved musician, who never quite lets his guard down