Levon Helm's 7 Lessons
For Filmmakers

By Elliot Grove

Levon HelmThe news that The Band's lead singer and drummer, Levon Helm, was losing his fight with cancer, filled me with terrible sadness. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, we are to lose one of the all-time greatest voices in American music: Levon Helm. Rolling Stone has ranked him as number 91, though for me he has always been top 10.

The Band, an all-Canadian group (with the exception of Helm), was one of the most influential rock groups of the late 60's and early 70's. At the time they were regarded as equal or better than the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Grateful Dead. But without a single number one hit, The Band has slipped into oblivion.

Here are 7 things filmmakers can learn from The Band's drummer, Levon Helm:

1. Persistence

Levon Helm joined fellow Arkansas musician Rompin Ronnie and the Hawks as a teenager, moved to Toronto and toured and toured for some 6 years until they decided one day to name their band, The Band.soon after they ended up with Dylan, then released two albums in quick succession: Music From Big Pink and The Band.

But 6 years on the road playing high school gyms to sparse crowds?

2. Craftsmanship

The entire group were renowned for their musicianship, and were constantly honing their craft. There was no middle road - you could either nail it, or you couldn't. 

Levon Helm himself, like the other members of The Band, was a multi-instrumentalist, and could play mandolin, guitar, bass and harmonica.

3. Music Rights

The importance of music rights can be demonstrated through Levon Helm's own hard luck story:

Helm fell out with lead guitarist Robbie Robertson over music rights who allegedly took sole writing credits on the songs in the record contract even though Helm alleged they were developed by contributions from each of the groups members. In the early years when they were broke, no one noticed. But as The Band took off, and more and more covers were done and albums sold, it became the issue that split them apart. Robertson failed to renegotiate the record contract.As Helm once said of Robertson's successful solo effort: "Good albums can happen to bad people."

Filmmakers need to learn about music rights and how they can benefit your career and finances.

4. Re-invent Yourself

Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, Helm opted for chemo therapy instead of surgery. His raspy and distinctive tenor voice disappeared to a whisper. He worked his b utt of to regain his voice, changed style , formed The Levon Helm Band with his daughter Amy and went back to his roots issuing Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009) - both of which won Grammy's.

Helm continued to engage with a wide variety of musicians from touring with Ringo Star to Elton John (who named his son after Helm).


Hi crippling medical bills led him to say on CNN one day: "You got to pick one -- pay your medical bills or pay the mortgage. Most people can't do both, and I'm not different."

To raise money he started a series of concerts at his home in Woodstock, called Midnight Rambles. Guests have included former bandmate Garth Hudson, as well as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Chris Robinson, Allen Toussaint, Donald Fagen of Steely Da. Other performers have included Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Carolyn Wonderland, Kris Kristofferson, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, Bow Thayer, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Taylor, Ollabelle, The Holmes Brothers, Catherine Russell, Norah Jones,

6. Collaboration

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form, and no one did it better than Levon Helm. As his daughter and Amy said on his website the day they realised he was losing his fight with cancer: He has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage

7. Master Storyteller

Movies are about storytelling, and so too music

As the final paragraph on his website reads:

"He is a master storyteller, who weaves his tales with the * magic thread of universality that ties us all. He beckons us to come in, sit a while and enjoy. We see ourselves in his stories and we are home."

BONUS: Don't Smoke

The most important lesson of Levon's life: don't smoke. There is hardly any footage of him being interviewed without a cigarette in his hand and, in the end, it was that, not the heroin,  that took away his voice and his life.

Fade Out

I love every song Helm sang. There is something about his voice that is so gripping. He's known for his vocals on some of The Band's greatest hits like The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Cripple Creek.

My personal favourite is the ballad Ophelia.
Here's Helm last year singing Ophelia, one of the top ten hits from 1970.

He's performing it at a Mighnight Ramble. His daughter Amy is on guitar.

Watch Quick Hits: Levon Helm Performs "Ophelia" on PBS. See more from Sound Tracks.

Here he is In 1974 he's singing with The Band in the Martin Scorcese doc: The Last

Your Comments Please
++++ Your statement that Robbie Robertson unfairly took writing credit for songs performed by The Band was an allegation made by Levon Helm. If there was any substance to this claim Helm and other members of The Band could have sort legal redress many years ago. They chose not to do so. I think you should not uncritically repeat unsubstantiated allegations.- Graham Squires gsquires55@optusnet.com.au ++++
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About Elliot Grove

Elliot GroveCanadian born Elliot Grove founded Raindance Film Festival in 1993, the British Independent Film Awards in 1998, and Raindance.TV in 2007, the Raindance Postgraduate Film Degree in 2011 and Raindance Raw Talent in 2013.

He has produced over 150 short films, and 5 feature films incuding his latest feature film, Deadly Virtues: Love.Honour.Obey. He has written eight scripts, one of which is currently in pre-production. He teaches writers and producers in the UK, Europe. Japan and America.

He has written three books which have become industry standards: RAINDANCE WRITERS LAB 2nd Edition (Focal Press 2008),  RAINDANCE PRODUCERS LAB (Focal Press 2013) and 130 PROJECTS TO GET YOU INTO FILMMAKING (Barrons 2009). His first novel THE BANDIT QUEEN is scheduled for publication next year.

Open University awarded Elliot and Honourary Doctorate for services to film education in 2009.
He is regularly interviewed. Here is an interview for Canadian television

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Levon Helm's 7 Lessons For Filmmakers