The Avett Brothers have found a sound and they’re sticking to it. The band’s high-energy, introspective folk-rock has carried them from self-releasing EPs in their home state of North Carolina to playing sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Next Thursday, June 27, they are part of the Outlaw Music Festival, along with Willie Nelson and Phil Lesh, that’s coming to Summerfest in Milwaukee.
The intimate documentary “May It Last,” co-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, chronicles that journey. A lot of these band rockumentaries are produced by their subjects and aimed squarely at the fan base, destined to be sold at the merch table after shows. While “May It Last” is no exception, the Avetts have a good story to tell, and it’s an engaging and revealing film about serious-minded musicians who have found fulfillment and happiness on their terms.
The film had a one-night-only screening in theaters in 2017 before premiering on HBO last year, and is now out on DVD and Blu-ray from Oscilloscope Pictures.
The film is built around the writing and recording sessions for the 2016 album “True Sadness.” Anyone expecting the behind-the-scenes histrionics or bad behavior common to other rock docs will be disappointed, as the brothers calmly work through one song after another with little to no conflict. The DVD has two deleted scenes entitled “Arguments,” but the in-studio spats they chronicle are so mild that the filmmakers hardly even realize they’re disagreeing.
The songwriting process is fascinating, a mix of alchemy and good, old-fashioned craftsmanship. In one scene, younger brother Seth Avett comes into the studio with a verse and a melody he’s written. Scott Avett comes up with a second verse that carries the idea forward a little more, and then together the brothers craft a third verse, finding the meaning of the song (“I Wish I Was”) as they’re creating it.
The brothers dig deep into their personal lives — divorces, heartbreaks, disillusionments — for their lyrics. After the recording of another song, “No Hard Feelings,” a song about finally letting go of resentments, everyone else in the studio grins and slaps each others’ backs at how great the song is.
But the brothers look physically and emotionally wrecked, staggering outside as if they’d just emerged from a grueling therapy session. Which, I suppose, they had. And only each brother truly understands what the other one is going through.
Woven in-between the studio sessions are interviews where the Avetts, their friends and family tell how they got from there to here. That twisty path includes a surprising early music career as scrappy punk rockers who eventually returned to the traditional Appalachian music they had rejected as teenagers.
The DVD features some two dozen deleted scenes, ranging from in-studio performances to extended scenes of the brothers on the road and at home. Now in their 30s, they seem happily settled, still living near each other (and their parents) in their hometown of Concord, North Carolina. Scott is a family man, while Seth has remarried and has a new baby.
At first, watching the brothers chop firewood for their dad or celebrate Scott’s daughter’s 6th birthday with cake and BBQ, the Avetts seem almost too normal to be true. But those small moments are fundamental to understanding who the Avett Brothers are and where their music comes from.
They may be able to fill an arena (or Breese Stevens Field, twice) and get nominated for Grammys, but they’ve never forgotten where they came from. Because they’re still there.