I have a brother and we worked together for close to twenty years. Our “band” broke up in 2006 after we sold our business. Like the Avett’s, we never really had a fight, and also like the subjects of this film, our parents provided us with solid relationship tools and an understanding of the importance of family. I like to think we are close even though we don’t see each other on a day-to-day basis anymore, but if I am honest a bit of the green monster touches me after witnessing the relationship enjoyed by Scott and Seth Avett. Their easy affection for each other, spontaneous laughter, and loyalty to both each other and their bandmates rings true.
Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s film will be a treat for fans, and will likely indoctrinate anyone else who happens to watch — even if you think you don’t really like the brand of country/hillbilly pop served up. The music, as with the relationships, feels so authentic and infectious. The content is helped along greatly by Jonathan Furmanski’s simple and elegant cinematography. We really are right with the band … this small group of very human humans. There aren’t very many traditional interviews, but the ones that do exist are conducted outside with natural light using super shallow depth of field combined with a slightly overexposed natural color pallet, creating an intimacy rarely found even in the best docs.
The film also has Apatow’s clear eye for humor. While the Avett’s do seem funny, the editing and shot choice serve to inject the creator’s energy — his funny bone — into the day-to-day musings of the band. It’s not unwelcome, and in fact helps humanize in a place where many docs miss the mark. And more importantly, the humor creates natural transition points — interstitial breaks in tone and emotion rather than physical space between.
The story is largely told over the year it took them to make their 2016 album True Sadness. We the viewer literally sit side-by-side with the band, experiencing what they experience as they experience it, from music creation to final recording. We also hear from Seth about his divorce, and spend time with bassist Bob Crawford meeting his family and seeing first hand his life after his daughter’s brain tumor. These guys are not rock stars. The filmmakers and subjects have allowed a rawness and unguarded view into the lives of real people who happen to be artists.
We discover a pair of brilliant musicians who surround themselves with a few other great musicians, but also a small family of their own making. This is not to say their blood families are less important — the film makes abundantly clear just how important family ties are to these guys. But we also get to witness the brothers compassion and regard for those who work with them. And it always feels like they are working together. Scott seems to be the big brother to all, but nowhere does it feel like they have sacrificed relationships for money or fame.
The music provides the thread for a powerful story of love and loyalty, reflecting on the band’s personal sorrows and hardships. At one point Scott and Seth are so spent after an emotional recording session that they need to physically leave the studio.
Apatow and Bonfiglio follow them outside, and in classic Maysles Brothers style actively interrupt the moment by asking why this song so emotionally drained them. It was jarring because I had forgotten there were filmmakers there … I no longer watched a film, but had joined them in the studio. But the interruption was also comforting because I had the same question and no way to ask it. I’m paraphrasing, but the answer I heard from Scott was something along the lines of it feels very overwhelming to be celebrated for creating beautiful art through revealing one’s soul sorrows.
He never really answered the actual question, but I new in that moment that these famous artists are the same as me. But instead of keeping all the hard feelings of life bottled up, they have a way to share the overwhelming experience of internal messiness. I finally understand why art therapy works and the cathartic essence of giving up one’s own pain.
This film gets 9 of 10 steel guitar strings.