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REVIEW: May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers

It’s not often I find myself getting excited about the release of a movie, but when a producer sets out to tell the story of your favorite band through the art of film, even I get excited. Judd Apatow decided to put together a portrait of my fellow North Carolina boys, The Avett Brothers. There was a release of the film last year in select theaters across the country for one night, but I was not able to attend a showing. A few weeks ago, I saw that it was going to debut on HBO on January 29th, and my excitement and anticipation to see the movie was back. One problem: I didn’t have HBO. But not to fear, I made sure I got a free seven day trial for one reason, and one reason only, to see May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Worth it.

The film was set around The Avett’s preparing for and recording their album True Sadness. Of course, there is more to this film than a band putting a new album out. It is the story of the dream of two young men from a hard working, blue collar background from rural Concord, NC. The saga began as Scott and Seth strolled through the halls of Madison Square Garden to do an interview, and the security personnel ask them to show their credentials to be in the backstage area. That scene sets the tone in my mind about the guys. Unassuming and real; so real that there is no way they can be the band, they must just be some visitors who need their badges checked to be there.

Through the use of older video clips and some old photos by our good friend Daniel Coston, we get to hear and see how the boys moved through a stage of rejecting their roots and moving toward the more popular grunge era led by their hero Kurt Cobain. Good news for all of us though: they realized that you can take the boys out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boys. Seth reflected back on his experience hearing and spending some time with Doc Watson and how he realized then that volume did not always equate to power. He saw that one man with an acoustic guitar can move the masses.

They decided that the two of them could simplify their sound and pair it down to Scott’s vocals and Seth’s guitar playing. Old footage from them playing at the Wine Vault where Dolph Ramseur found them in an “unpolished” and “homemade” raw state takes us back to their humble beginnings playing on the street and anywhere they could, as long as it was in Cabarrus or Mecklenburg County anyway.

There was a mindset change when they met Bob Crawford. Bob’s influence and vision took them out of the local area and on the road. They did say that if it wasn’t for Bob, they may not have ventured out on their first tour. This is not the first time that a local musician has credited Bob for motivating them to keep making music and pushing them to become better. I recently met with David Childers, and he too credits Bob for opening his mind to keep shaping his musicianship. Obviously Bob was a very important piece to the puzzle for the Avett’s sound.

More than anything, the film gives us insight on the relationship of the two and  how the pair make their music. As we get to see them in the studio scenes, there is a give and take between the them. They transition between both having their eyes closed and grooving together and then staring into the other’s eyes with huge smiles, finishing each other’s verses.  One thing that never changes on stage or in the studio: the two cannot hold still. I like to call them “squirrely.”  Whether his hair is in braids or laying straight, Seth’s neck is always bobbing and his feet are always tapping. Scott’s restrained efforts look like they could explode anytime in a bouncing motion like he does on stage. During their recording sessions, they almost collapse from the emotion and energy it takes to formulate a song and give it to the world.

In one of the most poignant scenes, the two have to stop recording and walk outside for fresh air. They talk about the struggle of putting out a song that everyone is always telling you how great it is, but there is a deeply emotional story behind the song. It is something that they still can’t really come to an agreement on how to handle this dichotomy. They sit there, together, with together being the keyword, trying to reconcile this in their mind. I guess it’s not something I really thought about, but they are giving away all their deepest, personal feelings to the world. Sometimes those are joyful and sometimes they are full of pain and loneliness.

They do not hold back in the film. We see the happiness and success of the band. They also show us some of the hard times that the band has had to deal with over the last few years. Talking about Bob’s daughter Hallie’s illness and Seth’s painful divorce, we see how they have been able to work through those tough times, together. Never leaving each other’s sides. There was always someone there to make sure Hallie had someone at the hospital; even Joe was sleeping on the hospital floor at times. Rick Rubin talked Seth through some tough times dealing with the divorce as well.

May It Last is more than a music documentary to me. It is extra personal, because I have sat in Mr. and Mrs. Avett’s home and talked to Jim about his life and how they raised the boys. I have met Mr. Ramseur and know how he takes care of his people. I live in the community where the Avett’s grew up. I even made a trip up to Virginia Tech one day on a whim to try to meet the Avett Brothers. I had a few people laugh and say, “You will never meet them.”

Well, I did. Scott was walking around between their bus and the open backstage area at the University. For the first time, I have to say I was a little nervous and starstruck. I asked him if I could take a photo with him. He wasted no time to grab me around the neck and pull me close to him like we were best friends. I gave someone my camera and we smiled for the shot. He also signed a poster for me and I gave him a picture I took of his dad outside their show at Bojangles Arena. He thanked me for the photos, and he wrote, “thank you for listening” on my poster. Joe popped out shortly thereafter and I yelled, “Joe!” Of course he came back and we took a selfie. I still have it on my phone today. I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of people in this movie, and I can attest to the genuine nature of all of them.

That is what I love about the Avett Brothers, their music, and their family. They are real and they are true to who they are. They they share their love and their hurts with us, just like we are part of their family. We hurt. We laugh, and we cry right along with them. Apatow’s portrait takes the long time fan inside the world of the Avett Brothers and brings the new fan up to speed on the their journey to where they are now. This is a must see for anyone who loves music, family, great North Carolinians, and Americana. The movie reinforced what I already knew about the guys. Oh, what about the photo I took with Scott you might ask? Surely I have it hanging up in my office. Well, it turns out I didn’t have my memory card in my camera. What can I say? Rookie mistake, but maybe I will write a hit song about it one day!

 

Born in a small town in Western North Carolina, exposed to the wonders of the world at a young age through stories, words, and pictures. I have fond memories of flipping through Life Magazine to see the iconic images of days gone by and the exotic locations that only a National Geographic photographer could take me. Of course having my grandmother by my side giving commentary of how she met Mohammed Ali and where she was as Kennedy's car made that slow, fateful turn onto Dealey Plaza gave texture and substance to the pictures. Since then, my feet have left imprints in the soil in places I could have only once dreamed of. I have seen beautiful children smile in the dusty landscape of SW Ethiopia. I have walked the streets of the French Revolution. I have discarded my shoes to enter ancient Buddhist Temples in Thailand. I am always in pursuit to uncover new information, soak in new cultures, meet new people, and discover new music that can stimulate my imagination. I am on a lifelong journey, still searching for that ultimate experience. The goal of my photography and writing is to take you with me on my quest. If you are unable to be there with me, I want you to be able to immerse yourself in my words and pictures to help share with you an understanding of what it was like to be present in that small moment in time with me.

2 Comments

  • Jamey Rodgers

    / Reply

    Wonderful review. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  • Jim Avett

    / Reply

    Very balanced article. Thank you for your kind words.
    Come visit!

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