SXSW 2017: “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” Transcends the Making-Of Archetype

Photo by Jonathan Furmanski

Directed by: Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio
Featuring: Scott Avett, Seth Avett, Bob Crawford, Joe Kwon, Paul Defiglia, Mike Marsh, Tania Elizabeth, Rick Rubin
Produced by: Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio
Executive Produced by: Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio, Jon Kamen, Dave O’Connor, Justin Wilkes
Music by: The Avett Brothers
Cinematography by: Jonathan Furmanski, Michael Richard Martin (Additional Camera)
Edited by: Paul Little
Sound Recording by: Brad Bergbom
Official Selection of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival

Editor’s Note: May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers is an Apatow Production in association with RadicalMedia. For my interview with directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, visit Filmmaker Magazine.

*****
“Sand beneath our feet, big blue sky above our heads,
no need to keep stressing from our everyday life on our minds
We have got to leave all that behind”

*****

Don’t let the subtitle fool you: this documentary, constructed with warmth along the lyrical rhythms of a human heartbeat, is far more than a square painting of its characters. Co-directed and produced by Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Michael Bonfiglio and Judd Apatow – the Spielberg of Comedy – May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers puts the eponymous band front-and-center in their first major documentary. But judging by the unwavering warmth that greeted the nonfiction feature’s World Premiere at SXSW, and by the Avetts’ collective, electrifying charisma an ACL Live performance that same evening, this will be far from the last movie to follow these musicians into superstardom.

Apatow and Bonfiglio. Photo by Michael Richard Martin

Shot over the two-and-a-half-year development process and production of the band’s ninth album, True Sadness, the doc’s naturalist aesthetic relies heavily on Jonathan Furmanski’s (Inside Amy Schumer) unobtrusive handheld photography. That is appropriate to this tight but expressive folk-pop quartet, composed of Scott and Seth Avett (you might not know this, but they’re siblings in real life!), Bob Crawford, and Joe Kwon.

Through Furmanski’s inquisitive lens (his outdoor photography is particularly handsome), we see that the Avetts are fully invested in exploring the often poetic sentiments that undergird their best-known songs like “I and Love and You” and “No Hard Feelings,” even at a cost to their intense personal lives. Also on hand throughout the sessions, which take the filmmakers from North Carolina to a Malibu, CA studio once utilized by The Band, is renowned producer Rick Rubin, who devised the idea for the movie.

To watch these soft-spoken young rockers record this luminous album, especially with its eponymous single becoming more popular every day, makes you wonder what it would have been like to watch Bob Dylan make Blonde on Blonde or to see Big Pink filled with friends in 1966. As a group, the Avetts and Rubin open up to Furmanski and Bonfiglio (who conducted the interviews here, as he did for his previous collaboration with Apatow, ESPN’s 30 for 30 film Doc & Darryl) like confidantes.

The Avetts. Photo by Jonathan Furmanski

Editor Paul Little weaves one-on-one conversations with them (shot in between the demo sequences and the Malibu sessions) in with studio footage, as well as incorporating material discussions about the brothers’ semi-famous families. This particular topic leads to May It Last’s most exemplary dramatic moments, including two major story pivots: one originating from Seth Avett in the second act and another from multi-instrumentalist Bob “Bobby” Crawford.

Even without those sections, May It Last never overstays its welcome, which might attract the fairweather Apatow doubters who crudely accuse his comedic films of being overlong. By coincidence, another SXSW-selected film he produced, The Big Sick, is also expertly calibrated in length and pacing. It comes as no surprise to read that HBO acquired the documentary just before its World Premiere – in a class of artistic depth with Lemonade and Picasso Baby, May It Last is certain to make Emmy waves for its filmmaking crew and the network.

Along with the hugely gifted Little, whose editing here represents a stunningly complex feature film debut, Apatow and Bonfiglio turn what may have been a slipshod, off-the-cuff “making-of” documentary into a pleasurable exploration of myth and the profundity of musical inspiration. Altogether, this musical marvel far outclasses its structural peers in emotional affect and depth.

Scott and Seth Avett. Photo by Jonathan Furmanski

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