Listen, kids: Long before Mumford & Sons grew out their facial hair and went digging for musical roots, there was the Band, which made a whole new thing out of old-time American music even though they were 80 percent Canadian.
The one member who wasn’t, Levon Helm, is the subject of a loose and tuneful documentary, “Ain’t in It for My Health,” directed by Jacob Hatley.
Helm, who died of cancer a year ago, was the Band’s drummer and one of its lead vocalists, but Hatley’s film does not dwell too much on the past. Less an archival clip job than a late-night jam session, it is informal and inviting.
The crew, and therefore the audience, hangs out with Helm in and around his house in Woodstock, N.Y., checking in with his wife, daughter and friends, and kibitzing while he smokes with Billy Bob Thornton and muses on various subjects in his creaky Arkansas drawl.
A few other interviews — notably with Barney Hoskyns, a British journalist and author of “Across the Great Divide: The Band and America,” and Elizabeth Danko, widow of the Band’s bassist, Rick — fill in the obligatory music-doc blanks. So does footage from Woodstock and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and recollections of the feuding, drug use and wild times that were part of rock ’n’ roll life in the ’60s and ’70s.
Helm and the film, which was shot in 2008, seem content to linger in the present tense. His voice, damaged by radiation treatment for throat cancer that first appeared in 1998 (and that seems to be in danger of recurring in the course of the film) is thinner than it was in the Band’s glory years, but still full of character.
He handles traditional songs and covers (of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”) with individuality and grace.
“Ain’t in It for my Health” is not the kind of movie that will widen the circle of its subject’s renown or occasion a reassessment of his musical contribution. Instead, it is an affectionate tribute and gift for fans who grew fond of his company on records or at concerts and who would like a little bit more.