Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio have created a gem of a documentary in their entertaining, profound and vibrant May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, which premiered in the 24 Beats Per Second category at the SXSW 2017 Film Festival. Apatow and Bonfiglio, who co-directed and co-produced the film, also achieved a fine consensus to seamlessly work with balance, humor and subtle artistry to chronicle the making of True Sadness, the Avett’s latest album.
Along the way, the filmmakers examined the evolution of these multi-talented musicians who have mastered most music genres but are currently in the groove of bluegrass, folk rock, country, pop, classic rock, indie rock, R&B, smatterings of metal, punk, and more. Suffice it to say, their eclecticism is a fusion that even touches on honky-tonk.
Within the backdrop of highlighting the making of the album True Sadness, the filmmakers gained exclusive on-the-ground access to the Avett’s demo practice sessions, concerts, the live studio recording session in Malibu at Shangri La Studios and their concert in NYC at Madison Square Garden to promote the album before its release in June of 2016. Apatow and Bonfiglio have performed a yeoman’s effort.
This documentary expresses the ineffable greatness that ultimately explains how and why Seth and Scott are still together performing after many years. It also discloses that the Avetts and their band members are on their way to Grammy fame – with a nomination in 2016 – and most probably will pull down lasting recognition before they put down their instruments and decide it has been “a good run” which must end.
The filmmakers begin with the Avett’s backstage preparation right before the Madison Square Garden performance in April of 2016. With classic Apatow humor, a snippet is included where a matron who is ushering the Avetts down the MSG hallway tells them to turn off their phones. The inclusion of this bit is priceless. Even performers of the status of the Avetts have to “tow the line” with their cell phones, and of course, they are innocent about it, revealing a humility that is characteristic of their inner nature and which the filmmakers unabashedly portray throughout the film.
This is who the Avett Brothers are right from the starting gate. Their good will is contagious, and the good will of this film is more than contagious. It is uplifting and downright awesome. If the audience who wanders into Apatow’s and Bonfiglio’s documentary are not Avett Brothers fans before the film, they most probably will be afterward.
The MSG concert Seth and Scott played at was a big event for them – they had never been to MSG before. The film is a revelation of what it took for them to reach this particular level in their career.
Apatow and Bonfiglio employ archival family footage of Seth (the younger) and Scott (four years older), with voice-overs of the brothers filling in humorous details about their attitudes toward each other and closeness at various stages of their lives. When they were very young, Scott shares that he was afraid that Seth would be kidnapped and always wanted to go with his mother to protect him if she was taking Seth to the store, on the one hand. And on the other, Scott would roughhouse with Seth and push him around when they were at home, the antithesis of the “protective bro,” which he still doesn’t get to this day. Perhaps only he was allowed to rough up his brother.
An examination of their early lives in North Carolina and family influences – their grandfather was a preacher who wrote incredible sermons that Scott enjoys mining for wisdom – are filled with anecdotes, along with commentary from their parents, details of their background and interviews with friends like Dolphus Ramseur (who worked with them on their former label), about their talents and the good-natured fun they generate. Past footage is inter-cut with current footage shot over the two years that the cameras followed the Avetts from North Carolina to California on True Sadness.
Snippets of the work sessions with their songs are included to whet the audience appetites for more and to reveal how the Avetts refine lyrics, meld them with their music and bring it all together. As a continuation of how their life in Concord, North Carolina (where they live) infuses their music and lyrics, the filmmakers included the on-the-ground open access to the family.
There are clips of Scott with his children and clips of preparing eggs for family breakfast which he gets from the free-range chickens in his backyard chicken coop. Scott discusses how important it is to make breakfast when he is home – they are often on the road doing concerts. We understand that Scott is interconnected with his family, his wife, children and Seth, who lives just down the road from him, and their parents and sister, who are in the vicinity.
All of these events, including family get-togethers where we are introduced to sister Bonnie and Seth’s girlfriend, are interspersed with the chronicle of their music evolution and various past gigs and present ones during the two-year period that the filmmakers spent on and off with them. We also learn about their early music influences. Some of the clips of their band Nemo are included, as both discuss how their interests morphed. And these segments are inter-cut with clips of their current work.
In an interesting segment, Scott discusses how he confronted a sea change in himself. He reached this when he met Doc Watson. the seven-time Grammy winner and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Winner – Doc mastered bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and gospel. One can see Watson’s tremendous influence, perhaps even to having encouraged their wide-ranging musical abilities. At the time Scott met Watson, Scott disliked being in North Carolina. He didn’t appreciate the rural atmosphere, the music, and everything about it. Speaking to Watson convinced him that powerful, loud performances weren’t delivered by volume. They were delivered from character.
Watson demonstrated this right down to his soul. It was then Scott realized that it was the songs that they would create that would deliver that depth and power. He returned to North Carolina with “a vengeance” and worked with a new zeal. He understood that the perfection had to come from within and that his roots would put him in touch with that soulfulness which he and Seth currently work on together. What one begins, the other finishes and vice-versa.
The documentary shows that the seven-member band headed out to Malibu in November 2014 where True Sadness was then recorded under the supervision and auspices of super producer Rick Rubin, who had helmed the Avetts’ albums since 2009. Rubin has produced four of their albums, thus far. Two of them have been Grammy-nominated in the Americana category. The filmmakers interviewed Rubin and included shots of him digging the music, earphones on his head during the recording process.
During this time, we are introduced to the band members (Bob Crawford, Joe Kwon, Paul Defiglia, Mike Marsh, Tania Elizabeth), in more depth. We discover inside information about the bands’ issues and vicissitudes (bassist Bob Crawford’s very young daughter Hallie had a brain tumor). In a vital segment, the filmmakers reveal how the band members stood by Bob and his family through that harrowing time with Hallie. Apatow and Bonfiglio reveal the joy of Hallie’s recovery as one of the highs of the band’s camaraderie and support for each other.
Apatow and Bonfiglio also focus a segment on the pain of Seth’s divorce, his honesty discussing it and the necessity of his writing the song “Divorce Separation Blues.” They include portions of the live studio session, perhaps the most powerful when Scott sings “No Hard Feelings.” After he completes it, the fullness of the spiritual depth of the song washes over him, and he must allow silence to reside in the moments before he can speak. The fact that the filmmakers capture this is incredible. One walks away with a remembrance of how artists create, not only for their audiences, but principally for their own healing and renewal.
The filmmakers reveal the exceptionality of True Sadness which features the songs, though not in their entirety – a wise decision. The versions here are just enough to understand how studio mixes add tremendous layers toward making this album progressive and more particular than their others in the next step of their evolution as artists/musicians. The album is credited with being one of the most powerful, heartfelt and deeply personal that they have created to date. And the lead song “Ain’t No Man” is just smashing.
And so is this film, which is a must-see if you are a fan. And even if you aren’t, it is a must-see because of how Apatow and Bonfiglio negotiate much more than what might have been just a clever romp into the hearts and minds of these “swell” guys. Their documentary goes deep to the character of these men and sends them on the road of Scott’s mentor, Doc Watson. And we are fortunate to be taken along at this juncture to measure how they will progress from here. “May it last.”