Judd Apatow on the Agony and the Ecstasy of The Avett Brothers
Filmmakers Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio write about the making of their eye-opening doc ‘May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers,’ in theaters September 12th.
When we started making May It Last back in January of 2014, we really had no idea what we were doing. There was no expectation of making an actual movie, much less one that would play in theaters across the country, but three and a half years after that first shoot, here we are.
The Avett Brothers’ music is incredibly honest and heartfelt. Their lyrics seem deeply personal, and listening to them is like hearing someone mine the depths of their soul. Their melodies alternate between achingly beautiful ballads and foot-stomping bangers, and there’s an emotional intensity to everything they put out.
When you see them perform live, they are transcendent. Their energy, stage presence, and musicianship are unrivalled, and every show feels like a near-religious experience.
In late 2013, we heard from Rick Rubin that the band was starting work on a new album, and that it might be something interesting to film. We had been looking for something to work on with each other for a little while, so we decided to go to North Carolina to do a sort of exploratory test shoot with the Avetts to see if there was something there.
We’re fascinated seeing artists at work in their process. The band seemed open to letting us in, so we figured that at the very least, we’d get a peek behind the curtain of a band that creates such personal songs and maybe get a sense of what makes these people—who seem to grapple so honestly and unabashedly with a huge range of emotions through their music—tick.
The Avetts occupy a somewhat unique place in music. At the time we started filming, they’d been around for over a decade, with a Grammy nomination and bunch of albums already under their belts. They were playing to arena crowds and had a rabid fan base, but they’d never gotten much radio play, never had a real “hit.” When you mentioned them to most people, the usual response was, “Who?” (That is still often the case.) We were intrigued by what the life of a successful working band who has operated somewhat under-the-radar is like.
We were curious about so many things about these guys and their process. What is the relationship like between the brothers? How do they write together? Where do their songs come from? What makes them so comfortable to share their innermost feelings with the world?
In the backs of our minds, we were also probably secretly hoping to capture the kind of band turmoil that is so compelling to witness in great music docs like Let It Be and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. And this band had two brothers in it—surely there was the potential for some real drama.
We didn’t find any drama, but there was something strange about these guys. They were quietly charismatic—at once incredibly warm and down-to-earth, yet they also seemed to exist on a slightly different plane than the rest of us. But the weirdest thing was how well they seemed to get along with each other, even while working through the challenges of creating new songs.
We still had no idea what we were making, but there was clearly something special happening. The music was great, which wasn’t surprising. And while we both love watching “making-of” documentaries, simply documenting the musical process of an album wasn’t really something we were interested in.
There was just a vibe in the room and in the footage we were capturing that we couldn’t put our fingers on, but we knew felt good. So we decided to just keep going. It felt risky, because there wasn’t really anything happening in the way you normally hope it does when you’re making a present-tense documentary. Maybe it’s because we were trying to figure out what that feeling that seems to surround The Avett Brothers was that we decided to keep going.
As the shoots grew and grew, and time passed more and more, we started to realize that in many ways, the lack of traditional documentary “drama” was what made this story special and unique. We got to watch these special people work and live and perform and create together, while dealing with the kinds of things we all deal with. We got to see how they support one another, take care of one another, and love one another.
After more than three years of work, what we wound up with is a portrait of a group of people who are real role models, who treat each other with dignity and respect and kindness and love, and who find themselves and their work stronger for doing so.
We hope that people can get a sense of what The Avett Brothers are about when they see May It Last, and that in watching the film they can take away a bit of what we were so privileged to experience with the band. Rick Rubin really put it best in an interview for the film. He said, “In the first 30 seconds of meeting them, I knew they were people that I wanted to work with. And it seemed like being around them would make life better.” We hope that, even if only for its hour and 44 minute runtime, May It Last will make life better.
‘May It Last: A Portrait of The Avett Brothers’ opens in theaters for one night only on September 12th. You can get your tickets here.