Levon Helm, the drummer and perhaps most familiar of the Band’s three singers, died of cancer last year, more than a decade after his first diagnosis of the disease.
Jacob Hatley’s amiable documentary, shot over more than two years, gives us a chance to hang with Levon, his friends and family in their Woodstock, N.Y., home in his late life. A series of vignettes sees Levon working on an unfinished Hank Williams tune with his guitarist friend Larry Campbell, smoking a joint with actor and fellow Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton, going for a medical examination of his radiation-damaged vocal cords, and riding a tractor with neighbouring farmers. English journalist Barney Hoskyns (Across the Great Divide: The Band and America) offers some historical context and Elizabeth Danko, widow of the Band’s bass player, Rick Danko, provides memories from life on the road.
Helms, still angry over the financial split when the Band broke up, has little interest in reminiscing and his voice, an echo of its old smoke-and-honey rumble, disappears entirely at one point. Then it returns for a lovely sing-along with his daughter of In the Pines, to his baby grandson. The portrait of the ailing artist is bittersweet, but when Helms sings or plays, the look on his face is pure joy.