Wednesday, February 28, 2018

May It Last: Philosopher Poets

I had heard of the Avett Brothers, but never listened to their music. I knew Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio had directed an HBO documentary about them, May It Last, but I didn't bother watching it on HBO as I figured there was no point in watching a movie about a band I didn't follow. However, after being persuaded by my colleague Steve, an Avett super-fan, I gave this movie a shot. And by the time I got to the end, I was smitten.

The documentary is told in a classic style, beginning with the childhood of Scott and Seth Avett (the eponymous Brothers), commenting on their personalities and close relationship, their love of music and evolution from grunge fans to to a return to their North Carolina roots and embracing Americana and folk music. We get the story of how the band was eventually formed and are introduced to some of the bandmates they recruited along the way. After several independent releases they finally agreed to sign up with legendary music producer Rick Rubin, and this movie focuses on the recording of their 2016 album, True Sadness, the one that truly launched them into mainstream music consciousness.

Those are all the classic elements of a musical documentary. But what is so moving about this particular band is that the brothers are genuinely thoughtful and introspective men who love each other and love music. And not just music, but writing songs. The most incredible part of this documentary was its focus on the songwriting process, watching Scott and Seth work on songs together and find just the right lyrics to get their emotions across. Scott talks about how his grandfather was a preacher and he always thought that people would want to hear about his emotions. That is what he and Seth put into their music - their souls. As Seth remarks, every time they go on stage, they are reading their diaries out loud. They don't know how to do this without being completely open about the moments in their life that have made a genuine impact. And sometimes this even means writing a song called Divorce Separation Blues.

The movie contains long interludes where we simply watch the band play, whether it be in the recording studio, a giant concert hall, or an intimate venue. Their music is soulful and varied, but the final half hour of this film is my absolute favorite. At the recording studio, after a magnificent rendition of a song called No Hard Feelings, Scott gets taken aback by his producer's congratulations. He and Seth take a break and what ensues is a deeply philosophical talk about why it feels so disingenuous to be congratulated for performing a piece of music that needed years of living before it could be crafted. Scott hates the commercial side of music - after pouring his heart into this song, ultimately he is being told it is "good" because it is going to sell. And after a whole movie where everyone called Seth the sensitive younger brother who Scott looked out for, we see how Seth calms him down and knows just how to give him the right advice to keep going on. In this small moment, you see how brother leans on brother and they keep on singing because they simply can't do anything else. This movie is full of a sense of family and community and I never questioned the love between these two men as well as their bandmates who have weathered tragedies together.

And then we get the end credits. Which feature a pair of songs that almost stopped my heart. Both are songs about or for their children, and both reveal how these men can create a song seemingly out of thin air and imbue it with lyrics that are deeply personal yet somehow also universal. It's a magic trick that only the greatest writers achieve. So watch and listen to May It Last. You may think you don't care for this music, but you'll find that you certainly care about the men who make it. 

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