A short sequence in "May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers," a feature-length documentary about the sibling-led North Carolina band arriving on HBO Monday, deftly illustrates the curious chemistry between Scott and Seth Avett that helped lead their energetic and expressive music to arena-filling heights.
Briefly we see the long-haired Seth Avett — the taller and more soft-spoken of the brothers — strumming his guitar on a porch overlooking an expanse of Carolina greenery and singing metaphor-rich lyrics about a loved one. He brings the half-finished piece to his older brother, Scott, and after some musical equivalent of finishing each other's sentences (and some movie-magic editing) the song "Wish I Was" debuts onstage around a shared microphone, traveling from zero to indelible in roughly five minutes.
Such is the process for the Avett Brothers, whose earnest mix of foot-stomping folk and Americana with unabashedly emotional lyrics caught the ear of Judd Apatow, the producer and co-director of "May It Last." (Michael Bonfiglio, whose credits include the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary "Doc and Daryl" about troubled baseball stars Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden is the other director.)
For all his experience with comedy ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up"), Apatow is also a music person — how else to describe someone who has featured Loudon Wainwright III, both as an actor and songwriter? And although the brothers' facility with translating raw emotions to music dovetails nicely with Apatow's body of work, his portrait of the Avetts sidesteps most rock-doc tropes for something that's as much a portrait of a family as a band.
Apart from a bearded and Buddha-esque Rick Rubin, who signed the Avetts to his label after the band's 2007 breakthrough "Emotionalism," there are no outside voices called upon to explain what makes their music so vital or testify to their broader importance. Although the Avetts' rootsy mix of banjo, upright bass and raw-throated choruses set the stage for a wave of similarly acoustic "Hey-ho" bands like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, there's little effort to dig into what drives their still-expanding appeal beyond providing a platform for the performances themselves. The sessions for the Avetts' 2016 album, "True Sadness," which constitutes the bulk of the documentary, aren't fraught with the tensions that marred sibling bands like the Kinks or Oasis, or constitute an especially uncertain, make-or-break period for the band.
This is not entirely a bad thing. Like the album, which ultimately yielded the Avetts' their first No. 1 single ("Ain't No Man," which topped the adult alternative charts) and a headlining date at New York's Madison Square Garden, the documentary — true to its name — provides a snapshot of two musicians doing what they do.
Fortunately, when you're as talented and passionate as the Avetts, that still makes for some pretty compelling viewing, especially for those who are already fans.
Bookended by that Garden concert, the documentary focuses on the sibling bond at a career fulcrum. "It's almost like a Disney movie," a member of their band says of their close relationship with a mix of admiration and disbelief. Both brothers still live in their hometown of Concord, N.C., not far from their parents, and Scott credits their minister grandfather's sermons for instilling in them the conviction that their voices needed to be heard.
"I feel something ... and everybody wants to hear about it, they must," Scott says while driving to the studio. "Don't they want to know how I feel?"
"May It Last" then takes the requisite look back at the Avetts' career, which began with a contrarian interest in rock but quickly shifted after Seth met bluegrass artist Doc Watson (the circumstances of the meeting aren't explained), which set the Avetts on their musical path once they joined a local stand-up bassist, Bob Crawford, who seems to balance the brothers with an even-keeled energy. Key moments in the band's rise are mostly disregarded, apart from an account of a meeting with a Nashville executive who wanted them to become a covers band. The Avetts had no interest.
"One thing we've become professionals at is reading our diary onstage," Seth says in the tidiest encapsulation of their songwriting style. "Desolation and pain. Singing that onstage seems completely reasonable to me."
But for all the lyrical tumult, "May It Last" mostly finds the brothers content — Seth has come out of a recent divorce into a new relationship that colors his songwriting, and Scott is married with a third child on the way. Crawford is shown caring for a daughter still recovering from a serious illness, and although the band's stories behind that struggle point to familial dynamics that reach beyond the brothers, there's not a lot of discussion about where the Avetts' heart-wrenching narratives come from. But given the heartfelt facility with songwriting in "Make It Last," they may not be able to fully answer that question, either.
In one of the documentary's most revealing moments, Seth records a lead vocal for the "True Sadness" track "No Hard Feelings," a stark yet hopeful consideration of mortality girded by his brother's lilting harmonies. Visibly drained as they awkwardly accept some congratulations in the studio afterward, the two excuse themselves as the documentary crew follows.
With the sun falling outside Rubin's Malibu studio, Seth is asked what made that song so emotional, which leads to Scott addressing his conflicted feelings about wringing emotions into hit songs. "It just makes me equate it to 'Congratulations, you've sacrificed deeply and the evidence of that struggle has come out with something beautiful,'" he says with some frustration, but then he pauses. "That's a good way of looking at it, I guess."
Then the brothers turn and go back to work.
'May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers'
When: Premieres 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.