Jacob Hatley, a USC film school graduate and native of a small southern town, captured a remarkable time in Levon Helm’s life.
It was a time when the musician, most well known as the renowned drummer and vocalist for The Band, was faced with mortality and losing the one thing that gave him joy. More than anything, Hatley’s film allows us the unique opportunity to just hang out with Helm at his eclectic home in Woodstock, N.Y.
Helm reinvented himself after years of success with The Band. He channeled his hungry man folk-rock into three successful albums with Vanguard Records, to include “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt” and a live album, “Ramble at the Ryman,” each of which brought Helm Grammy Awards. He was also known for the intimate concerts, or “rambles,” held at his home that frequently brought adoring fans along with celebrities such as Billy Bob Thornton to admire the artist in his domain.
The film, “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm,” has been called “one of the most interesting and compelling portraits of a musician in a long time” by Ain’t it Cool News and “… an affectionate tribute and a gift to fans” by A.O. Scott of The New York Times. The film finally arrives in Santa Monica this weekend, and I was able to catch up with the director to ask a few questions about the making of the documentary.
SMDP: You initially began work at Levon’s on a music video for his album “Dirt Farmer.” How did it develop into a full-length documentary?
HATLEY: We just wanted an excuse to keep hanging out with the man. We liked it up there, liked seeing shows every week, liked all the people that he surrounded himself with. We were shooting off-the-cuff, hand-held footage during the music video, just because it was fun. Then one day we told people we were going to make a documentary and his record label got behind us and there we were, a bunch of documentary filmmakers!
SMDP: What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in regards to this film?
HATLEY: I’m happy that it’s a character piece, that it isn’t a by-the-numbers rock doc. I like the intimacy we were able to achieve.
HATLEY: We have a lot of “hang out” footage that ended up on the floor — funny, bizarre, stoned, late night antics — and I wish we could have found a way to make them work in the body of the film.
SMDP: Do you think Levon’s previous work as an actor (Helm appeared in films such as “The Right Stuff” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” amongst many others) contributed to his on-camera charisma?
HATLEY: I think he liked being in front of a camera, and I think having us there reminded him of how much he enjoyed acting. But the charisma was always there, no matter what.
SMDP: Why do you think he allowed you into his private life?
HATLEY: I don’t know. We became friends. We liked being around each other. I think when you’re friends with someone long enough you just naturally become privy to some of his more private moments.
SMDP: What’s it like living with someone you’re filming?
HATLEY: Great, in that you don’t have to force or schedule things. You are always available and ready to shoot. But it’s also very difficult when you’re trying to make a film that’s objective, that isn’t a puff piece, because personally you’re so close to your subject.
SMDP: You were a Santa Monica resident much of the time during the making of the film. What was it like going between here and Woodstock?
HATLEY: Between Woodstock and Santa Monica you kind of have it all. The bars in Woodstock are open until 4 a.m., which is a major plus for them.
SMDP: What’s one word to describe Levon Helm, the man and the artist?
SMDP: This is your first feature. Do you have other projects in the works?
HATLEY: Yes, we have a script that we’re very enthusiastic about called “Carolina Highway Killer.” I just workshopped the script at the Film Independent Lab and we’re working on financing now. It’s a character piece/thriller about a tough-as-nails truck stop girl.
Jacob Hatley’s friendly and genuine demeanor no doubt contributed to his ability to win the musician’s trust and capture a truly moving story of an aging artist. The director’s unique perspective is why, I believe, the story isn’t simply a biography that only a fan would enjoy, but a story about life, death, and enjoying the time we’ve been granted with simple pleasures.
You can see “Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” at the Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex on June 15 and 16. For more information about the film go to www.levonhelmfilm.com.