The trajectory of the Avett Brothers’ career has been bewildering to watch. It’s easy to get bogged down in hipster cynicism sometimes; seeing them take off to the point of earning Grammy nominations, hitting number one the charts, even something as simple as radio play, you could roll your eyes and say something snide about how you prefer A Carolina Jubilee to the Rick Rubin produced output that began with I and Love and You. Easy, however, is rarely correct.
Truthfully, no band in the 21st century has worked as hard to get where they are today, or is more deserving of acclaim. In a day where instant superstardom is the name of the game, and a face often feels more important than raw talent, Scott and Seth Avett came ‘round the long way, honing their talent, refining their sound, and growing their base organically.
Our world so often feels like a superficial facsimile of the world we want it to be. Fake smiles beget fake feeling, and our emotions become commodities. Today’s artist is only as real as their current album or next tour. Perhaps that’s what makes the Avett Brothers shine as bright as they do. They’ve built their career on a foundation of almost radical realism, pouring out the most sacred and valuable resource a person can have, themselves, into every note they play and every word they sing.
‘It’s weird to be congratulated on mining of the soul,” Scott opines, exhausted after recording “No Hard Feelings” from True Sadness, the album whose recording is documented in May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Visibly spent, both emotionally and physically, the brothers inform Rubin that they need a minute before the recording process to continue.
May It Last, co-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, is filled with tiny moments such as this, where one or both of the brothers casually let their guard down and allow themselves to be penetrated by raw visibility. Their façade of stardom is carefully chipped away to reveal the people they are beneath their public personae. Unshockingly, the core of the Avett Brothers is the same as it’s been since we first met them, seventeen years ago on their independently released, eponymous debut.
Of course, a lot has changed for the brothers (and the band) since they were busking “Kind of In Love” in North Carolina parking lots. Today, they’re selling out Madison Square Garden and touring the world. Between their growing fame, international draw, and association with Rubin, a lot of people have, in recent years, begun to bandy about that most dreaded of terms an indie musician can hear: sell out.
It’s an easy label to lob, but, again, being easy doesn’t make it right. What some might consider selling out, others might consider growth. The Avetts have, over the course of their career, done a remarkable job at scaling with their audience and taking their fans on an intimate journey through their becoming adults. Each album feels, in its own way, like a chapter of the larger arc of their life stories.
Only one chapter is looked at closely here, their most recent one. Apatow and Bonfiglio make the (correct) decision to focus almost entirely on the writing and recording of True Sadness, paying little attention to the albums and chapters that came before it. When their past is discussed, it’s discussed with the detached sentimentality of an adult remembering their youth. Fond remembrances and nostalgia, presented through the prism of the present day.
What’s present, as it turns out, isn’t so far gone from the boys who first won the hearts of North Carolina before taking the world by storm. There’s always been a kind of good ol’ boy charm to the songs of Seth and Scott. They make the kind of music your friend might play during a night of porch sitting and whiskey drinking with your nearest and dearest. Regardless of how you feel or don’t feel about the rising production value of their latter day works, watching May It Last, it’s hard to deny that these are the same fun-loving hill country boys that first drew your hearts and ears.
When capturing moments of Scott or Seth at home in North Carolina, Apatow and Bonfiglio often reach the same kind of heights achieved by Les Blank in A Poem is a Naked Person, which documented Leon Russell on tour in the 70s. Elements of vérité are seen throughout, giving us intimate glimpses of the Avetts with their loved ones. One particularly telling moment comes when a laughing Scott randomly sees and picks up a small frog on a small country road.
In their hearts, if not your perceptions, Scott and Seth are still the same ol’ farm boys they’ve always been, their success (and hipster cynicism) be damned. May It Last captures this beautifully, and, along the way, recontextualizes True Sadness. Far from being a tour or concert documentary, Apatow and Bonfiglio take their audience into the process of creation, from demo writing to recording. May It Last uses True Sadness as a vantage point to explore the brothers and their lives.
Celebratory. Exploratory. Revelatory. May It Last is all of these things, often at once. Set to the career spanning sounds of the best of the Avetts, the film is a wonderful and inspiring journey into the hearts and minds of the Avett Brothers. Like their music, it’s open and warm, often emotional, and always a treat. It’s a powerful reminder about what you’ve always loved about Scott & Seth and their music, and an absolute must for any fan.
May It Last plays tonight only in select theaters. For tickets and showtimes in your area, click here. It is scheduled to air on HBO in 2018.