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With most behind-the-scenes, making-of music docs, you can feel something ominous in the air. Either the artists on display are on the verge of a schism or someone’s personal life is threatening to undo the collective goals of the group. “May It Last,” a documentary from Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio about the North Carolina-based folk-rock group The Avett Brothers, never stumbles on that central, driving conflict. Instead, the film presents the story of two brothers, Scott and Seth Avett, who have lived their separate lives without being fueled by the need to bring seismic change to the music industry or each other. “May It Last” still places The Avett Brothers in the context of a musical quest but finds an equally satisfying path in the ordinary elements of their lives.
Most of the in-process footage from “May It Last” follows the recording of the band’s 2016 album “True Sadness” (the final track of which gives the doc its title). These sessions come well after the band has achieved the fame to land them on Starbucks checkout counters and bluegrass festival lineups alike. But aside from the shots of the Malibu recording studio (accompanied by the transcendent shimmying of legendary producer Rick Rubin) and the size of the audiences at their present-day gigs, The Avett Brothers for most of “May It Last” seem like an act that’s on the verge of something big rather than past it.
Apatow and Bonfiglio’s previous collaboration, the “30 for 30” installment “Doc and Darryl,” made for an effective snapshot of the rise and fall of two iconic New York Mets players, mostly drawn from their recounting of events that happened three decades prior. Here, the two directors have far more to work with from a group in motion. Charting the Avetts’ evolution in real time plays much better to their strengths as documentarians.
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Those small moments, whether they come from the brothers’ growing families or their geographical ties, are what drives the band, the album and, by extension, the film. That gradual accumulation of artistic and life experiences means that there’s no inciting incident or dramatic climax for the film to pivot around. Whether Apatow and Bonfiglio were unable to capture it or The Avett Brothers’ dynamic is as pristine as their fellow band members and managers would attest, there isn’t really a sense of inter-band strife, manufactured or otherwise.
There is an element of myth-making involved with any portrait of a band or their influences, as comes with the band’s former label exec Dolphus Ramseur’s hearty proclamation that Scott and Seth are the greatest songwriters in North Carolina history. But Apatow and Bonfiglio don’t seem as concerned with the band’s image and destiny as Scott’s tiny moments in the kitchen with his wife and children. “May It Last” is perfectly content with letting the two brothers’ chopping a cord of firewood with their father speak to their musical journey as much as any flashbacks to their (beguiling) punk rock past.
The second half of the film focuses on the various developments that threaten to place the group at a crossroads. As disease and divorce dominates most of the non-music conversations, “May It Last” can’t help but return its focus to the continuity that’s kept The Avett Brothers a functional, reliable commodity. Even in times of personal crises, the repeated emphasis on family and harmony becomes a satisfying refrain. So instead of seeing bandmembers bicker with each other over the relative value of their songs, we see them sharing breakfast together.
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When the focus does turn to the band in the studio writing and recording “True Sadness,” Apatow and Bonfiglio have a keen sense of how much of each song to include. Some sequences work best simply as snippets of lyrics as they’re evolving in real time, as with the metaphor-heavy “I Wish I Was.” But the film saves the real heft of the extended in-studio glimpses for one particular late-film performance of “No Hard Feelings.” For those that have “I and Love and You” on vinyl or those averse to any song with a banjo, the song represents a universally identifiable artistic catharsis. As Scott and Seth exhaust their respective emotional reservoirs, it’s the perfect encapsulation of what Apatow and Bonfiglio have been laying the groundwork for also.
“May It Last” recognizes that The Avett Brothers aren’t trailblazers. The music that they play feels at home in a few different genres and the brothers themselves would likely admit that they’re not rewriting the formula for how to make a relatable song of joy or loss. What “May It Last” does get across is how this musical partnership is able to so potently harness the power of the everyday. It’s strong proof that a film about a band can still be captivating even if it seems destined to end in a giant group hug.
“May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” premiered in the 24 Beats Per Second section at the SXSW Film Festival. HBO has acquired the television rights to the film.