The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Great music documentaries go deeper than just the music. If we’re going to follow a band around for a couple hours, there needs to be something meatier than a tired musician playing a song, looking at the camera, and saying, “You know, this came straight from the heart.” Because really, no singer-songwriter will ever be able to fully articulate how that “heart” beats and stops and bleeds and aches. They can only just play it for you, offer some context, and move on. For some, that might be sufficient, but it’s not enough to warrant a great film. For a band like The Avett Brothers, who have long delivered earnest folk ballads that read like great Southern literary works, the music already speaks for itself. That’s why filmmakers Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio took out their shovels for May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers and dug deep into the North Carolina outfit that has won over the world with their platinum-selling records.
How deep? Well, they spent over two years with the Grammy-nominated rockers and pored through hours upon hours of home movies and fan footage to reach the core of what this band has always been about: family. At seven members strong, this tight-knit collective has a lot of stories to tell, and Apatow and Bonfiglio frame them all within the recording process behind their last record, 2016’s True Sadness. The two filmmakers captured every waking second of the Avetts as they worked with producer Rick Rubin out in Malibu, California, and it’s through this medium that we learn the band’s origins, their influences, what drives them, what keeps them together, what keeps them up at night, and everything in between. As the film breezes by for 107 minutes, we discover that the music is secondary to everything they have in their life — their wives, their children, their friends, their parents — and that it simply wouldn’t exist without them.
But the music must also exist for them, and as we watch Seth and Scott Avett tend to their daily life, whether it’s making waffles for their family or chopping wood with their pops, we start to see that the process never really stops. The whole thing works like an infinity loop: you create, you deliver, you create again. It’s a never-ending battle that the two masterminds are fortunate enough to always win — though, not without their share of sacrifices. One of the more subtle beauties of this documentary is seeing how art is so often born out anxiety, and how the sharpest artists tend to be those who understand what they’re delivering, not just creatively but literally. At the end of the day, great songs are made by great songwriters who are honest and brave enough to pour themselves into said songs, and that can only happen by sheer will.
In one pivotal scene, Seth and Scott leave the studio after recording “No Hard Feelings”, and Bonfiglio brilliantly allows them to extrapolate on what they’re feeling and why they’re in such a stupor. As the California sun dies out in the distance, the two brothers chew on the moment, digressing on the congratulatory nature of producing music, namely how it’s weird to be given acclaim for writing about tragedy. Granted, that may sound a little hokey on paper, but it’s a genuinely sobering scene in the film, and one of the rare times when you catch the two off their game. Neither brother has an answer for one another, they kind of just sit there, stew in their thoughts, and let the energy surround them. It’s admittedly a very paradoxical situation, being that we’ve not only listened to that torturous process, but that we’re also watching it play out on-screen.
Incidentally, that paradox has factored into their daily lives. Halfway through the documentary, the focus shifts on stand-up bassist Bob Crawford and his daughter, Hallie. It’s revealed that in 2011, Hallie was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, which she survived after treatment for several years. Apatow and Bonfiglio delicately broach the topic, allowing the pieces to flow together naturally through Crawford and his family as they retrace some of the more emotional steps they’ve taken and how the band was incredibly supportive. At one point, Seth meditates on the experience himself, admitting that, despite the terror and trauma at hand, there was a lot of joy to come out of it, too. The people they met along the way, the relationships they built, and the times they shared were all positive threads that led to uniquely important bonds.
Bonding is an essential component of The Avett Brothers, and while that’s something you can certainly glean from their rousing stage shows, the why and the how is something else entirely. Apatow and Bonfiglio do a crackerjack job constructing that bridge, and it’s through their eye for detail that the film finds its steadier footing. It helps, of course, that True Sadness marked the first time since 2007’s Emotionalism that the band recorded live and together, and that unity is all across that record and all across this documentary. May It Last isn’t just a portrait of a band, it’s a scrapbook of a family, one that’s thorough, funny, and full of larger-than-life stories that will tickle the funny bone as often as they bruise the heart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing, you’ll sigh — basically, how you feel walking away from any show by The Avett Brothers.