In 2012, when Judd Apatow used the Avett Brothers‘ buoyant, love-drunk ballad “Live and Die” in his coming-of-middle-age comedy This Is 40, it was a choice that reflected a passion for the band’s heartfelt folk pop. “Their music is about reaching out and trying to connect with other people, as well as the obstacles of love,” says Apatow. “And I try to express some of the same things in the realm of comedy.”
So when he heard that his friend Rick Rubin was producing the Avetts’ ninth album, True Sadness, which came out last year, Apatow asked the band if he could document its creation. The resulting film, May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers – which Apatow made with co-director Michael Bonfiglio – is getting one-night-only screenings in theaters around the country. It will also get an airing on HBO at a yet-to-be-announced date.
In addition to telling the band’s story going back to a hard-rock band called Nemo (“That was some rock & roll for you,” Seth says with a laugh), it presents a fly-on-the-wall look at their process, and the emotion that goes into it, as well as the familial love within the band. “It’s rare to see two brothers who love each other and there aren’t any deep disturbing emotional issues involved,” Apatow says. “We followed them for years and we have yet to see a problem in the relationship, so we’re all very jealous and appreciative that this exists on Earth.”
But that’s not to say there was no tension. In one scene, frontman Scott Avett is shown having what he later describes as a “tantrum” after singing the softly wrenching “No Hard Feelings.” When they were done performing, Rubin and some of the other recording staff complimented Scott and asked if he was ready to move on to a new song, which prompted a visceral prickly reaction in him. “I was completely out of control as far as my mental state,” he says. “And that happens to me, anytime that I’m fatigued. I don’t clinically know what it is, but I do know that it’s part of my process and I get very touchy during it,” Scott laughs.
“In that part [of the session], I realized we had just recorded a very, a very special song,” he continues. “I knew it was a masterpiece, lyrically and otherwise. And something about that birthing causes a lot of emotions with me, part of which was being congratulated for it. Now, I’ll accept any congratulations from anyone for it at the drop of a hat, but there’s something about that touchy moment where I’m just out of control.”
Apatow and Bonfiglio were also on hand for intimate personal moments – from bassist Bob Crawford’s daughter surviving brain surgery to Seth Avett receiving the happy news that his then-girlfriend, actress Jennifer Carpenter, was pregnant. “Nothing was off limits,” Bonfiglio says. “They were incredibly comfortable from the beginning. For me as a filmmaker, it was really just about building trust. It took a while to build up to that trust to where I would feel comfortable asking Seth if Jennifer was pregnant on camera, based on a hunch I had. That’s not something I would do if I just met somebody. Just getting to know each other as people built a comfort level over time that we were able to get a lot of intimate stuff.”
“They had no notes on the final cut of the movie,” Apatow says. “I think we were sensitive to what was important to them, and we were never trying to do a gossipy, intrusive documentary. But we felt like they were very available to us. People got married, babies were born, there were joys and struggles, and when Mike showed them the film in New York, they just loved it, and they had a very positive experience watching their lives. That’s also because I think they’re all great people, so it’s easy to enjoy yourself when you’re actually a good person.”
“It was pretty special and pretty surreal,” Seth says of watching the film for the first time. “I’m used to seeing us with instruments in our hands, so to see how we speak and what our tone is as a spectator was kind of bizarre. It’s a completely different thing from watching us perform, because what’s happening in the movie is not us performing by any means.”
So just how did Apatow sell the Avetts on letting him into their world? “He said, ‘I just want to be involved in something that is about something I love,'” says Scott, “and that helped us open the door.”