Levon Helm lived a life in music, one that unfortunately ended too soon last year when he was 71 years old. But what a life! His career traced the entire arc of the rock and roll era, from his early years seeing Elvis, Sonny Boy and Bill Monroe as a kid in Arkansas, to his years on the road as a member of Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, then leader of Levon And The Hawks, which became Dylan's first road band. Then The Hawks became The Band, the most respected band of the golden age of rock.
He played a decent guitar and a distinctive mandolin, but that voice! Levon was the voice of the American heartland, an iconic, craggy, lusty voice whether singing, acting and narrating, or just telling stories. And, oh yes, he was one the the very best drummers in the world. But his post-Band career, while artistically rich, left him ultimately broke, and in the late nineties cancer took his voice.
To pay the rent and medical bills, and just to play, he began hosting Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock, where he had a studio in his beautiful barn. Playing for a couple hundred people on Saturday nights, Levon came all the way back to the top, and along the way his voice came back. Sort of.
This beautiful and powerful documentary, filmed with Levon's full cooperation around 2008, finds him at home with his family and friends, learning of his nomination for a Grammy for his new album (he would win it, along with two more), laughing and telling stories with his friends and bandmates, and playing with some of the best musicians on the planet both in his barn and on tour. While the beautiful spirit and sheer joy of music certainly shine through here, the film is also unflinching in showing Levon struggling with a ravaged voice and being tested, rather unpleasantly, at a hospital, and making those closest to him cringe with his bitterness about the end of The Band and the subsequent demise of his dear friends Rick and Richard.
Ultimately, this film holds up in several ways. It is a gritty, effective "fly on the wall" style documentary; it is an interesting and instructive view of a Rock life; and if you went to a Ramble at the Barn, or just loved Levon for the national treasure he was, it will move you.
OK, I guess that's a thumbs up.