In their second documentary, Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio get to know roots-music siblings the Avett Brothers.
Superstar producer Rick Rubin says that, within 30 seconds of meeting the Avett Brothers, he knew he wanted to work with them. Newcomers to the group may have a similar response while watching Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers: in the first few minutes of interviews, they come off as some of the most down-to-earth, easily likeable men to ever succeed in the music business. The intensity of that impression may diminish as the doc progresses, establishing them as more life-sized human characters. But few people who consider themselves fans will regret having spent these 100 minutes hanging out with the brothers, and those on the fence (boy/girlfriends of superfans, Americana aficionados of a traditionalist bent) will likely have a more affecting musical experience than expected. Though booked as a one-night special theatrical event, it will likely have a healthy afterlife on video following its early-2018 run on HBO.
Centered around the writing and recording of last year’s albumTrue Sadness, the doc contains plenty of in-studio material without feeling (as so many rock-docs with such a focus do) like a glorified EPK. After some introductory clips, it settles down in Asheville and Concord, North Carolina, where brothers Scott (older, snarkier) and Seth (younger, more vulnerable) work and live near where they grew up. Rubin points out that pretty much all the famous brother-based musical acts (think The Kinks) hated each other, but with the Avetts it’s the opposite — a partnership based on “love and understanding of what the other brings.”
The fellas agree. Seth is endearing in his description of a friendship that developed once he, as the five-years-younger kid brother, was old enough to be a real peer; having grown up under Scott’s protection, he says “I have much less trouble deferring” to him in musical matters. When they’re packing up after a day’s work and heading to their separate homes, they send each other off with the same “goodnightIloveyou” one suspects they’ve repeated thousands of times.
The filmmakers are present for the actual composition of some of the album’s songs, watching as one brother sings a line, says something about what he thought might follow it, and gets an appropriate turn of phrase from the other. One strums a melody, the other invents the flourish that makes it memorable. Though their emotionally direct lyrics need little explication, it’s enjoyable and occasionally revealing to see them come together in this way.
We meet their parents and sister, significant others, and bandmates/crew; late in the film, during the account of a health crisis, we understand how family-like those band members are. We hear how their current style came about, after both men spent their teenage years wanting nothing to do with the country music popular in their area. They liked Hall & Oates and Prince, then Nirvana, and their first band was a hard rock outfit called Nemo. It was physically painful, draining stuff to perform — but Seth’s teenage encounter with folk legend Doc Watson taught him that a powerful performance didn’t need to be loud, and the brothers reinvented themselves.
While filling in bits of this group history, Apatow and Bonfiglio follow the Avetts out to Malibu, where they’re to record the new songs with Rubin at the helm. While this section feels easy-breezy, it also happens in the shadow of a long divorce, and the doc’s most affecting full-song performance (the recording of “No Hard Feelings,” a wonder-filled imagining of life’s end) may catch viewers as unawares as it does the brothers, who are visibly spent after committing it to record. “One thing we’ve become professionals at,” Seth explains, “is reading our diary on stage.” But being good at doing something doesn’t mean it’s easy, and this sequence captures much of what fans cherish in the Avetts’ music.
Production company: Apatow Productions
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Directors-Producers: Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio
Executive producers: Jon Kamen, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes
Director of photography: Jonathan Furmanski
Editor: Paul Little