You all know the song, and you’re gonna start singing it as soon as you read these lyrics: “Take a load off, Annie / take a load for free / take a load off, Annie / aaaaaaaaaand you put the load right on me.” I’ve heard this easily-recognizable and earnestly-sung chorus from “The Weight” everywhere in the world, from clubs to concerts to cruise ships to its cover by a Scottish band called Travis. If you didn’t know, this song was originally written and performed by a band called… The Band. Getting their name due to being a backing band for the likes of Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, they started writing and recording their own songs, and “The Weight” is their most famous one. Sung by drummer Levon Helm, “The Weight” seems to capture the soul of a bygone era, where a man can stroll in and out of any town on a whim. This song also serves to introduce a new documentary about Helm, titled Ain’t In It For My Health, which follows Helm around for what turns out to be the last year of his life, as he succumbed to cancer in 2012.
If you didn’t know much about The Band before, don’t worry; director Jacob Hatley wisely gives us enough of The Band’s history sprinkled in small doses throughout the documentary, with anecdotes from Helm and others chronicling everything from the fun times to the acrimony that led to The Band’s split. Amidst those sprinkles, however, is the story of a courageous cancer survivor who’s just on the cusp of recording, releasing, and touring behind a new album, which would eventually be nominated for a Grammy Award. Even though the years may not have been kind to Levon Helm, he sure as hell didn’t show any signs of slowing down, stopping, or quitting the life he wanted.
What you’ll see, instead of a suffering cancer patient, is a man possessed with one purpose: to serve the song. Having been in remission for some time from the throat cancer that took away his strong voice, he started singing and recording again in his later years, joyously making music with his beloved friends at his farm in upstate New York. At 70 years old, we see him get on a bus and go on tour, where he’s reminded that he’s not a man in the prime of his youth; he’s a father and a grandfather, slowed by the ravages of stage and touring life, not to mention his previous bout with cancer. But he’s determined to make music as best he can, and the sparkle in his eyes never falters during these sessions, whether he’s onstage at a large show, or if it’s at his own home during one of his famed Midnight Rambles. He’s not a rich man, either – some of these Rambles were held for the express purpose of raising funds in order for him to keep his home.
That said, he tackles everything – music, friendships, life – with the vigor of a 20-something hopeful man, and Hatley lets us see him bounding from one thing to the next – playing the drums, singing, playing the mandolin, playing the guitar, partying with Billy Bob Thornton – with such an infectious joy. Everything seems to be an adventure for him – except for the treatments he undergoes for his damaged vocal cords. When scenes like this reveal his frail nature, we’re brought back down to earth and made to realize that we might be watching the recurrence of the cancer which wound up killing him. But there’s always something to pick our spirits back up after these scenes, a wise choice that Hatley makes in order to make Ain’t In It For My Health more of a celebration of Helm’s life rather than a postmortem.
FINAL GRADE: A