The Avett Brothers - May It Last

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:

On September 12, the Avett Brothers' documentary, May It Last, was simulcast at theaters all throughout the U.S.  I thought these events were reserved for A Night at the Met and the Bolshoi Ballet but presumably not all of these showings are required to be so high brow.  This screening was in fact very down to earth.  The theater auditorium where I viewed the movie was probably 3/4 full in spite of the theater being closed in the days leading up to it due to Hurricane Irma.  The film made for a great diversion, but hardly just a concert film, it also made you think and feel - much like the brothers' songs.  I thought the concept of a one night simulcast was a little odd, but with our family being rabid fans it really made sense.  As Scott Avett described early in the film, their fan base just keeps growing akin to The Grateful Dead's loyal followers.  Once you are in the fold you don't really leave as these guys put their heart and soul into all they do and it is apparent at every show.  So it made perfect sense that they would have a loyal following across the US that would turn out (I heard of sold out theaters in several locations).  I'm sure on a combined basis it was their best selling event to date.

The filming centered around the recording of last year's True Sadness, but also told the story of the brothers' humble upbringing and hilarious early efforts at punk rock.  Growing up and still living in rural Concord, North Carolina, the brothers, the older more boisterous Scott and the younger more introspective Seth, couldn't be more unassuming.  One early scene showed them helping their father chop wood for the winter, though I think the wood was at Scott's house.  One of the best lines of the movie came here, as Seth chided his brother, standing in front of a massive wood pile, about how he would likely survive the winter given he had central heat.

Although there was some typical friction when they were young, what was brought out and was totally uncontrived was how they look out for each other and the entire band.  Influenced by their parents love of regional music and an early encounter with Doc Watson, their musical fate was sealed.  In addition to the brothers, the movie also profiled bass player, Bob Crawford, who told the story of faking his way into the band.  Cello player and entertainer extraordinaire, Joe Kwon, was also given air time maybe not quite on par with his huge personality.  As not every rock band apparently needs a full time cellist - he joked he makes himself indispensable with his technology, cooking, and flight booking skills so he can't be fired.

You got a real sense of how, in spite of non-stop touring, the members went out of their way to support their families and each other.  When Crawford's daughter, Hallie, had to undergo brain surgery at a young age you could see the strain on the band and his family, but also the bond that grew by rallying around him and his wife. (Crawford may be known to more non-fans given his outspoken support for the St. Jude medical community that aided them).

Ultimately though, the movie is about the music as well.  There is an outstanding full play of 'Morning Song' at a promotional event and the most touching musical scene being the run through of the recording of 'No Hard Feelings' from last year's album.  Signing on to be produced by Rick Rubin is not without its pitfalls, as the brothers discuss "the elephant in the room" right after the aforementioned take.  With pats on the back and "great job" thrown their way it belittled the art - as if the same were said to VanGogh after cranking out Starry Night or Picasso after slaving over the enormous Guernica.  Seth gives a touching and earnest explanation that he interprets the high fives as being told they had produced something technically excellent and if it wasn't understood beyond that it was okay.  Whether intentional or not, Seth stood out to me as the one willing to bare his soul at any cost whether talking about the pain of divorce or through performing a song.  Ultimately this is where this movie gains its strength and the band their popularity - they put themselves out there nightly and give it their all and it is transparently so.  As a result, you can also see how the rewards of their hard work come in the form of appreciation by their fan base no matter the cost to themselves.

As comic relief and maybe a bit of a mildly malevolent figure, Rick Rubin comes across as the crazy grandpa who has a secret to hide.  Describing that he always leaves it up to the band whether to work with him or not comes across a bit like Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroads - I can make you famous if you want it.  That coupled with the creepy jigs he dances during the recording sessions lets a little unease seep in (also bringing chuckles from those that didn't know who he was or what he was up to).  Serving as foil to Rubin, the boys' father, Jim Avett provides the grounding that is evident in the core of who they are.  His hard-bitten but compassionate wisdom is on display many times throughout the film.  As the credits roll and the album's Billboard placement and awards are described, you wonder if this is the reward the band fears, but they have faced bigger demons and prevailed so it's of little concern.  Judd Apatow's direction, given his string of below the belt comedies, seems a bit strange but his sincerity is apparent.  This peek into what makes a band of such high caliber tick serves as its own reward, revealing them to be as human as they would have to be to create their art.

I understand this will be picked up by HBO early next year so be sure to check it out when it next surfaces.

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