May It Last Shows the Raw Avett Brothers

After the Grammy Awards highlighted for me all of the things that I don’t like about our culture of celebrity—where people are famous for being famous instead of actually doing something—I needed a bit of a pick-me-up. I’m glad I hadn’t cut HBO out of my satellite package because they gave me just what I needed with May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. 

Far from the preening self-congratulation of the Grammys, May It Last is an inside look by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio at the Avetts’ career, in particular the putting together their most recent album, True Sadness. Any avid listener of the the Avett Brothers immediately recognizes Scott’s and Seth’s voices and the radically honest lyrics that characterize the band, but as with most of our heroes we long to know more about what really motivates, hurts, strengthens, and inspires them. Apatow and Bonfiglio capture the offstage truth of one of the most truthful bands around.

Scott and Seth Avett grew up around music. Their father, Jim Avett, is a well-known bluegrass veteran and he is a ubiquitous presence at Merlefest, the music festival held every year in Wilkesboro, NC. Jim was close friends with Doc Watson, who occupies a legendary place in American music history. Spending time with Doc when they were young teenagers gave the younger Avetts a different perspective on music and its purpose. Of course, they tried their hand at loud rock music (and in concert they still aren’t afraid to plug in and play loud). But when they accepted that music doesn’t have to be loud to be powerful, they stripped down their sound to acoustic instruments and found the magic of one of Doc Watson’s standards for good playing: honesty.

In addition to their characteristic sound, the Avett Brothers are known just as much for the depth and honesty of their lyrics. Few artists bare their lives quite like them. As they said in the documentary, they sing their diary every night on stage. Whether they sing songs about divorce, loss, happiness, carpe diem joy, or excruciating grief, May It Last documents the authenticity in the songwriting and recording clips in the documentary.

In one segment May It Last shows Scott reflecting on the pain of leaving his family in North Carolina to go to California to record. Then, the band is in Malibu catching up with each other, hugging producer Rick Rubin, and getting into the studio writing and recording process. Apatow and Bonfiglio somehow manage to move among the band in the studio and the house where the band stayed. They end up giving us access into the scars and wounds that show up in the music by showing the guys talking about their experiences, then cutting to correlating clips from concerts. Seth talks openly about the pain of divorce, then Apatow and Bonfiglio cut to the song he wrote about it, "Divorce Separation Blues." Everyone in the band talks about the pain and fear and mutual support they all felt when bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor--and it's all visible--before cutting to a clip of "Morning Song." This all builds to a kind of climax as they all reflect on mortality and how at any moment they could “put [their] instruments down for the last time.” 

The reflection on mortality leads to Seth and Scott recording “No Hard Feelings.” It was one of the most powerful moments in the film (I actually wept while watching it because, even though I knew the song, context really matters--and maybe seeing it on television I had my guard down). Once they’d finished the song the studio was silent. They just sat there saying nothing. Shortly afterwards,  on the steps outside of the studio the brothers reflect together on the nature of pouring your guts out in a song. This was the kind of moment that gave the film its truest strength: even though the guys were aware that they were being filmed, they showed us their scars. They are so used to their lives being on display that they weren't phased or tempted to pander to the camera. Instead, they let us in on the joy, the heaviness, the confusion, and the beauty of their kind of artistic expression.

Throughout the film I kept wondering when the guys would, forgivably, seem to perform for the camera, but it never happened. I found myself surprised that the documentary captured such intense vulnerability. But then I remembered that the guys in the documentary are the guys in the songs and the songs are true representations of the guys. May It Last was a true portrait of the Avett Brothers. Doc Watson would have been proud not just of their musicianship but, I think perhaps more importantly, their honesty.

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