I first encountered the late, great Levon Helm not through his music, but through The Right Stuff. His voice opens the film: “There was a demon that lived in the air,” he says, as the camera speeds you through high clouds, and his narration sets the stage for the story of America’s entry into the Space Age.
His on-screen role as Ridley, Chuck Yeager’s flight engineer and sidekick, is small, even if he does have two of the movie’s best lines.1 But as narrator, Helm’s distinctive Arkansas twang bookends the movie. Choosing him to narrate was counterintuitive and brilliant, because The Right Stuff is as much about the closing of an older America as it is about the opening of space. Ridley and Yeager and the flyboys at Edwards Air Force Base seem to have wandered off a John Ford set, out there in the high desert, dressed in leather jackets and khaki, drinking whiskey and beer in a rattletrap saloon, even riding horses.2 In the movie’s second half, as the Mercury space program begins and works towards its climax with the John Glenn orbit, the light changes from sunburnt browns to cool indoor blues, and the NASA men wear gray flannel suits or clean white smocks when they’re not in their shiny synthetic space suits. They live in pre-fab houses and drive fiberglass Corvettes.
The next-to-last scene, though, takes place back in and above the high desert, back with Yeager and Ridley, and then, just before the credits roll, Helm’s narration comes back to bring the story to a close. You can watch the ending as a triumphant assertion of the ongoing need for old-school guts in a plastic world, or you can watch it as the last hurrah of the last cowboys before they’ve all crashed and burned. Either way, Levon Helm’s voice is the landmark, the monument from a wilder world.
Which is more or less how Helm came to fame in the first place, as the drummer, singer, and living link for The Band. An Arkansas farm kid in a band full of Canadians, backing a Jewish folkie from Minnesota, Helm grew up listening the old country and folk – before such music was known by either name – on the Grand Ole Opry and the King Biscuit Flour Hour and his family’s front porch. When The Band – first with Dylan in that West Saugerties basement, then on their own – set about re-imagining and re-animating the American folk tradition, rescuing it from its biggest fans and would-be curators, Levon Helm was the foundation. He was the foundation musically, as any good drummer should be, and he was the foundation spiritually, as the honest-to-God down-home country boy, who’d been among the last in the Western world to learn indigenous music in the manner that got it called “folk” in the first place.
1 The first is when Ridley, Yeager, and the press liaison officer are talking about the test-flight program in their hangout, and the officer asks – half-rhetorically – “You know what makes these birds go up?” Without missing a beat, Ridley the engineer replies, “Hell, the aerodynamics alone would take hours to explain . . .”
The second is the last line of the next-to-last scene, when Yeager has taken a new jet to the very limits of the atmosphere before being forced to eject. Ridley’s with the ambulance driver hurrying through the desert toward the column of black smoke when the driver sees a solitary figure in the distance. “Sir, over there,” he says. “Is that a man?” Ridley looks, sees Yeager striding away from the wreckage, and says, “Yeah, you damn right it is.”
2 I’m referring only to the movie here, not to Tom Wolfe’s book, much less to the real history of Yeager, Edwards, and the test-flight program.