Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 09, 2017 11:41 am 
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True notes

The Avett Brothers are a folk rock band from North Carolina that seems to have risen on a relatively quiet trajectory toward stardom. Seth, 37, and Scott, 40, are a couple of tall, good looking, good old boys with nice smiles and big perfect teeth from a quiet rural world who've eschewed the Nirvana and Doc Martens of their youth as well as the bangles and cowboy drag of Country for their own simple clothes and heartfelt sincerity. They've melded their seven-person band into a close-knit, loyal family who perform their own compositions. They're not really just 'folk rock'; that's just an easy label. The style of the Avett Brothers's songs Derk Richardson of the San Francisco Chronicle has described as having "the heavy sadness of Townes Van Zandt, the light pop concision of Buddy Holly, the tuneful jangle of the Beatles, the raw energy of the Ramones." And sometimes they might remind you of Bob Dylan, but with a North Carolina twang. And maybe River Phoenix too. Without forcing, without at all the kind of hype that more complicated description might turn you off with to start out, this film wins you over to them.

Seth and Scott are clean livers too, from the drug-free look of things. Heck, they don't even smoke. Or fight: their harmony and warmth toward each other is the first thing you notice. What's to make a movie about? A lot of the way through, there may seem nothing very special about it, apart from unusually good vibes. The brothers weren't friends, Scott says, till he was 13, and then they bonded and they've been best friends every since. They live less than a mile apart in Concord, North Carolina, where their parents also live. This makes their working relationship relatively frictionless, but it doesn't mean their material is soft or easy. If it's got the sadness of Townes Van Zandt, it couldn't be that.

The film describes the band's gradual formation, with each new member seeming like a friend for life; and the way they respond as one family when the little daughter of Bob Crawford, their standup bass player and the first additional band member, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. But the subtle strength of the songs doesn't really emerge till the film's centerpiece: the making, with celebrated Malibu producer Rick Rubin, of their 2016 album "True Sadness." Rick looks like a guru and maybe he is. He has the rep of bringing out the best and sincerest from his artists. He's the dream person for a singer songwriter to work with, as Jake Bugg recently said too. At Rick's studio is where we get to see Seth sing his song, "No Hard Feelings," and you get why this movie and the Avett Brothers are worth watching. These guys sing right from the heart, and this could be the most profound song on the album and in the film. Just writing those last sentences I choke up, and I don't even know why.

When my body won't hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free
Will I be ready?
When my feet won't walk another mile
And my lips give their last kiss goodbye
Will my hands be steady?

So begins "No Hard Feelings." But those are just words on the page. You need to hear and see Seth sing it to feel the rare emotional purity of its resolution and sadness. It's sort of a good cry, and though Rick says "Really excellent," and asks them "what's next?" you understand why they must take a break because they've poured everything into it - along with Bob Crawford, the bass player; Joe Kwon, cellist and violinist, cook and general helper; Tania Elizabeth, fiddle player and touring band member; Mike Marsh, drummer; and Paul Defiglia, keyboardist and touring band member.

After the performance of "No Hard Feelings," the filmmakers catch Seth and Scott in a discussion outside about the conflict between receipts and tickets and pouring your heart out. Scott says he feels conflicted about it, but Seth says they're just two different things. But like the band, this is an issue that's far from as simple as Seth makes it look. You've got to love Scott for saying that the fact that "the song sells" is something he's "deeply conflicted" about. "One thing we've become professionals at," Seth declares, "is reading our diary on stage." But soul-baring is a dangerous game to play. "No Hard Feelings" is about dying. That's a pretty grownup subject. The recording of this song and the boys' debate about it are the heart of the film.

After that it's anticlimactic, even the gold records and the triumphant performance at Madison Square Garden. But all, including divorce, new girlfriend, baby, kids, and a wedding, are part of the band's and the brothers' growth that shows up in the songs. All show as Indiewire says, the lesson that a pop music film doesn't have to show conflict to be captivating.

Judd Apatow, Michael Bonfiglio's May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers (2017), 104 mins., debuted 15 Mar. 2017 at South by Southwest (receiving an audience award); also showing at Full Frame and Nashville. Now distributed by Oscilloscope, it will be shown for one day in 250 theaters nationwide on September 12, 2017, and tickets are now on sale. It will air on HBO in early 2018.


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