Movie Review: May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers

The greatest little band that's never gone platinum.

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Oscilloscope

I have failed several times to pigeonhole the Avett Brothers for people I think might like them. It's hard. To begin with, there's no ignoring the fact that this is a band with a banjo player, and who wants to deal with that? Is this some kind of country act? If so, what's with the cello?

The Avetts aren't country, exactly (in Grammy world they've been consigned to the vague Americana category). But there's no use in trying to describe them precisely. The Avetts (whose surname would rhyme with HAY-vet if that were a word) have to be heard and seen in order to absorb the full experience of their music. Conveniently, both of those bases are covered in a new documentary called May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, which premiered on HBO this week. The film was co-directed by Judd Apatow, the Hollywood comedy king, and veteran documentarian Michael Bonfiglio, and it surely qualifies as a labor of love—something the Avetts seem to inspire in many of those who enter their orbit.

May It Last chronicles the making of the group's ninth album, True Sadness, which was released in 2016. We spend quite a bit of time in studios with the band—which includes, along with Scott (banjo and piano) and Seth (guitar), upright-bass player Bob Crawford and cellist Joe Kwon, plus auxiliary fiddle, keyboards and drums. We see Scott and Seth demo'ing songs on their own, with Scott on drums and Seth on bass. We see them tossing snatches of lyrics back and forth as they build a song. We see them getting in their trucks at the end of the day and each saying, "Good night, I love you," before driving off.

Then we follow the brothers out to Malibu, where they move into producer Rick Rubin's Shangri-La Studios to get down to work. We hear them talk about their lives and their beliefs, both of which are candidly examined in their music, and are the reason why it has connected with so many people. (The Avetts aren't chart-topping superstars, but they can sell out New York's Madison Square Garden – as we see at the beginning of this film—and they've booked a three-night stand at Red Rocks Ampitheater, near Denver, for later this year.)

Their story: Scott and Seth hail from a rural area (cows, log-splitting) of Concord, North Carolina. Growing up, they listened to Hall & Oates, Duran Duran, and Prince and Nirvana, too. In the late '90s they fronted a loud, riffy rock band called Nemo. Then Seth, the younger of the brothers, met the North Carolina acoustic-guitar virtuoso Doc Watson, and in hanging around with him Seth says he learned that really powerful music required something other than just volume. He and Scott went acoustic and started recording for a local label. (Throughout the film we note that Scott's banjo style, while entirely capable of the raucous assault often associated with the instrument, can be lilting when he's gently fingerpicking his way through a ballad.)

The 2007 album Emotionalism was the Avetts' breakthrough, in that it came to the attention of Rubin, the studio Buddah who has recorded acts ranging from the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to Tom Petty and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to At the Drive-In (an Avetts fave) and Johnny Cash. Rubin was stirred by the brothers' music. He signed them to his American Records label and promoted them to his friend Judd Apatow. And here we are with May It Last.

The film demonstrates why the Avetts's music is so moving. It's largely derived from their lives, from the love and concern they feel for their bandmates and families (when Crawford's two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, one or another member of the band was always on hand with him at the hospital) and their pained-but-stoic acceptance of life's sorrows and losses. The deep fatalism in their worldview is vividly conveyed in one electrifying scene in the film in which they're quietly recording "No Hard Feelings," an instant farewell-to-the-world classic. Throughout the rest of the film we see them smiling and singing and whirling around stages—there's a lot of upbeat music in their repertoire. But the darkness is always there.

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  1. there’s no ignoring the fact that this is a band with a banjo player, and who wants to deal with that?

    Banjo’s awesome, boy.

    1. Am a bluegrass fan…

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  2. I used to like some bluegrass but generally ignored it because so much was weeping-at-the-casket stuff … the I stumbled across Doc Watson and looked a little harder. I could listen to him for hours.

    1. Went to a little music fest in my smallish town that was scattered among the front porches of houses in an historic neighborhood. We walked by a house whose porch was populated by a few older black folks. We exchanged some idle chit-chat but I found it funny that they referred to the music (which was barely audible at their house) as Country Western. It was funny — it seemed that any white guy holding an acoustic guitar was a country singer to them.

      1. “What kind of music do you usually have here?”

        “Both kinds, Country and Western.”

  3. ” To begin with, there’s no ignoring the fact that this is a band with a banjo player, and who wants to deal with that?.

    Steve Martin must be rolling in his grave.

    1. Do you know something the rest of us don’t…?

  4. I’m not an Avett Brothers fan. Anyone who has an album called “Emotionalism” probably isn’t going to be my cup of tea (emotions belong within the nether regions of one’s soul, not on an album cover).

    But if you really believe this
    this is a band with a banjo player, and who wants to deal with that?
    then you can GTFO, Loder. I don’t care how good your movie reviews are.

  5. “I have failed several times to pigeonhole the Avett Brothers for people I think might like them. It’s hard. To begin with, there’s no ignoring the fact that this is a band with a banjo player, and who wants to deal with that? Is this some kind of country act? If so, what’s with the cello?”

    You need to get out more, Kurt. “Roots” or “Americana” music is a thing. A real thing. And it involves banjos, guitars, upright basses, fiddles, domos, mandolins, and the occasional cello, as well of a few other more rarely seen and heard instruments.

    1. Was wondering where all those banjos, guitars and upright basses came from. Americana, you say…?

  6. Was being wry, not earnest — obviously, I would’ve thought…

    1. I’ve been noticing a lot more problems lately with people not recognizing sarcasm around here. I blame Trump, somehow.

    2. Some get wry, Kurt – too many don’t. Because so much today is pretending to be earnest, the current common reaction is to knock it down as insincere from the jump. On the subject, the startling thing about Scott and Seth is they’re earnest and it’s not an act. Seen them live many times and they put on an amazing show. Haven’t had time yet to watch M.I.L., but hope to next week. Thanks for reviewing it.

    3. Some of us got it, and even smiled. Thank you, Please keep doing it. The Philistines can just suffer.

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  8. Avett bros suck balls
    Alt rock gayness acting like they are bluegrass.

  9. The Avetts are awesome! And, yes, they definitely fit in the “Americana” mold quite nicely.

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  11. I really like the Avett Brothers. They are incredibly talented in everything they do. I think the Weight of Lies was the song that got me started on them.

    The weight of lies will bring you down
    And follow you to every town ’cause
    Nothing happens here that doesn’t happen there
    When you run make sure you run
    To something and not away from ’cause
    Lies don’t need an aeroplane to chase you anywhere

    1. “The weight of lies will bring you down…”

      They ripped off Mad Season?

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