Rock 'n' roll isn't always kind to its elders. For every geriatric star plowing through the hits before well-heeled fans, there's an Alex Chilton or Dee Dee Ramone meeting their later years in impoverished circumstances.
Also in this category: Levon Helm, the charismatic drummer, lead vocalist and beating heart of The Band, an outfit that began as The Hawks, backing Bob Dylan on his electric tour in 1966. In the late 1960s, they recorded the albums on which their reputation endures: Music From Big Pink and The Band. But by the time of the third album, we learn in Ain't in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm, Jacob Hatley's absorbing, intimate documentary, The Band was falling apart.
As the lone American, Helm brought the Southern soul to this much-mythologized outfit, which performed at Woodstock and graced the cover of Time magazine in 1970. However, the band's strongest personality was guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson, who secured most of the group's publishing royalties for himself. Decades later, Helm's bitterness has not abated and, as Hatley's film reveals, he won't consider reuniting with the surviving members of The Band when the Grammys come calling with a lifetime achievement award. He died in 2012.
To produce Ain't in It for My Health, Hatley, an Asheboro native, spent several years in close quarters with Helm at his home in Woodstock, N.Y., as he navigates his financial, health and musical issues with remarkably good cheer. Helm even allowed Hatley and his crew to witness intimate, painful scenes in his doctor's office.
On the phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives, Hatley says he and Chapel Hill-based editor Thomas Vickers had a variety of documentary influences. "We're certainly [D.A.] Pennebaker fans," he says, acknowledging the director of the great Dylan doc Don't Look Back. But he also cites Todd Phillips' GG Allin doc Hated as an important influence. "And we're huge Gimme Shelter fans," he adds, referring to the Maysles' celebrated Stones doc.
In 2001, Hatley graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied English with Daphne Athas and Marianne Gingher, among others. "To be a director, I needed to be a writer first," he says. "I don't know that they thought I was good at prose, but maybe they thought I could make it as a screenwriter."
Hatley thinks of himself primarily as a narrative filmmaker. During the editing of Ain't in It for My Health, he and Vickers wrote a screenplay about women at a truck stop that they're currently workshopping and pitching.
When he appears for two screenings this weekend at the Chelsea, he'll be at the scene of a formative experience: his college job as a projectionist for the three art cinemas then operated by Chelsea owner Bruce Stone. "My fondest memories are of every Thursday, when couriers would come with new cans of prints," Hatley says.
He would go up to the booth and splice the films before previewing them, alone or with friends, in the wee hours. "Mulholland Dr., I watched for the first time by myself at midnight."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Zero dark dirty."