Full Frame Documentary Film Festival:
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers
Saturday, April 8
Carolina Theatre, Durham

I’m not particularly a fan of the Avett Brothers, which made me the odd person out in Fletcher Hall last night, judging from the outbursts of mid-screening applause and the fawning post-screening Q-and-A. Through fifteen years of dogged persistence, the brothers from Concord, North Carolina, and their adopted musical family have built a devoted global fanbase for their soulful, punk-tinged acoustic bluegrass and folk. When singer/banjoist Scott Avett and cellist Joe Kwon showed up with codirector Michael Bonfiglio after the credits of May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers rolled, they received more testimonials than questions.

But that old fanbase has been tested since 2009’s I and Love and You, when the Avetts switched from self-recording for an indie label to recording with Rick Rubin for his American label. Their Rubinization has been gradual, proceeding from rock drums and electric instruments to the deconstruction of their signature live-in-a-room playing, with more edits, more compression, and even—gasp!—electronic backing tracks. This came to a head with last year’s True Sadness, which featured the Avetts’ first number one hit, the perfectly Rubinesque “Ain’t No Man.” A Lumineers-like stomper, its irresistible electric bass line and its synthetic gloss stand in marked contrast to the intricately grained wood finish the band built its name on.

The other director of the doc, which premiered at SXSW in March, is none other than Judd Apatow, who has previously used the Avetts’ music in movies like This Is 40. May It Last follows the entire creation of True Sadness—from songwriting to acoustic demos to electric recordings, from Echo Mountain in Asheville to Rubin’s studio in Malibu—with a superfan’s ogling admiration but also with a successful director’s confidence to probe his subjects. If the record spelled a betrayal of acoustic rusticity to some longtime fans, it meant something entirely different to its creators. Though the film brims with music, it’s less interested in the Avetts’ voyage into new commercial waters than in unpacking the personal joys and sorrows behind the songs. A flattering but penetrating portrait, it resembles its subjects—intimate, earnest, friendly, humble (Seth very simply, Scott a little self-consciously), a little goofy, and utterly apolitical, with only the last being a fault.

With their multiple Grammy nominations, the Avetts still live in Concord, where they grew up, a few miles from their ridiculously charming family. “I’d like these guys even if they weren’t my sons, you know that?” their dad remarks, after listening to them demo a new song. In their childhoods, Scott, four years older, emerged as the voluble leader and protector, as you can still hear in the prominent bluesy yowl he brings to the wending harmonies. Seth was the follower and helper, as you can still detect in the sweet, pure atmosphere of his voice. He talks about learning guitar as a kid so he could support Scott, whom he considered the singer. As teens, they played soccer and listened to Nirvana, and they started a post-hardcore band called Nemo, in the style of At the Drive-In. Doc Martens soon gave way to Doc Watson, who showed them that power resides in “character,” not in volume. But they carried the energetic style of rock performance back to the country and bluegrass music of their youth.

The Avetts say that RCA asking them to record other people’s songs, because their music didn’t fit into a radio niche, put them off major labels for ten years. But, perhaps tailing the breakout success of banjos-come-lately like Mumford & Sons, they finally signed with Rubin, whose wild mane belies his professional savvy. The guy who helped turn hip-hop into pop culture in the eighties now looks like a well-fed acetic saint and seems able to cosmically groove to any scrap of music he hears, at least as long as the Avetts are playing it. “It seemed like being around them would make life matter,” he explains, which cuts to the quick of what they do for their fans. They create a sense of life as deeply meaningful not because anything particularly momentous happens, but simply because it’s life.

The story of brotherly competition one expects never emerges; the Avetts seem to be best friends and balanced collaborators to an almost supernatural degree. Perhaps because its success came long and slow, the band was never riven by it. Instead, it grew, as families and friends grew around it, helping to disperse the weight of the sorrows the film exhumes from behind the bright facade of True Sadness—Seth’s divorce, the illness of bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter. Both are movingly resolved, in genuine, hard-won ways, and regardless of how you feel about the Avetts’ musical choices or cultural coding, their strong, simple decency shines through.

It’s not that I’m going to run out and buy all the albums. Plunging deep into the world of a band that stirs old-timey feelings among white Southerns but isn’t willing to get its hands dirty with advocacy or politics just feels weird to me. But the songs in the film, especially in their half-dressed states, are a pleasure to listen to. It’s hard to resist the brothers’ disarming naturalness and virtuosity, the musical cleverness and emotional sincerity of the tunes. Not being a purist, I don’t think electric is a bad look for the Avetts. (Based on some reactions, you’d think Rubin had slathered the record with trance synths and dubstep drops, rather than the tasteful electronic bass loop percolating under “You Are Mine.”)

But the acoustic “Ain’t No Man” here does surpass the airless radio version, and for the Avetts’ old fans, the film may serve as a corrective as well as a revelation. For me, it reinforced what I wrote about in the intro of our Full Frame 2017 preview: the unique persuasive power of a documentary to make me forget my Avetts apathy and fall under their spell, if only for the span of the film.