Chris Thile lets us in on a little Irish saying, told to him by his ex-father-in-law: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Should we expect that the following documentary will be a dubious account of progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers? It’s a peculiar way to start things off (especially for a meat-and-potatoes band documentary — this isn’t “F For Fake”), suggesting that what’s to come may not exactly be the straight story, but at least will be an enjoyable one. “How To Grow A Band” does prove to be entertaining even if you’re not already aware of musician Thile’s various exploits, though in its effort to “tell a good story” without the pesky thing called truth (in this case a feel-good story of a band experimenting and coming out on a top), it often overlooks any legitimate tension brewing in the band.
Thile got his start at eight years old, impressing all with his proficiency on the mandolin. Both his family and the Watkins clan started the outfit Nickel Creek and quickly found success, riding the wave of popularity until 2007 when the core members undertook a soul-searching hiatus. Chris, once a wunderkind in a prosperous band, now found himself itching to break new ground. Channeling the emotions he experienced after a troubling divorce, he brought together a handful of other musicians and proposed an album that served as a kind of folk/bluegrass fusion with formal, symphony string arrangements. Songs would have movements that were intricately written, yet would be played with the same energy as folk/bluegrass, making the abstruse feel organic. The team put together some material and hit the road, facing a modicum of hurdles along the way.
Or at least that’s how the movie makes them out to be, as a number of problems seem to be brought up and, without even being resolved, swept under the rug. Given the kind of difficult music they’re playing for generally unassuming audiences, it’s to be expected that many will not take kindly to forty minutes of string quartet. An early show in Glasgow exhibits this problem and it leads to a small self-conscious squabble between bandmates on the road to another show. Some immediately doubt their future as a collective while others propose differences the live show should have; Thile remains confident in exactly what they’re doing. It’s an unmanufactured, legitimately tense moment — especially because it’s so early in the tour. Unfortunately it’s not discussed any further, and director Mark Meatto cuts to the next performance, which turns out more favorably than the previous. It’s unlikely that this is how the conversation ended, and it’s even more unlikely that every subsequent show went over swimmingly — while we’re by no means looking for crying and theatrical breakdowns, the general tone is much too peachy and, in a way, makes it feel like revisionist history. This writer (for the most part) agrees with the quote above about pesky veracity, but only if it makes the story more interesting. If you’re cleaving moments of discord just to paint a prettier picture, things start to feel one note and spurious.
In between verite moments on tour (which also includes interview sessions with press) are various excerpts of archival footage to help build Thile’s legacy for the unfamiliar, not to mention sit-down interviews with both members and famous fans (folks like John Paul Jones, Yo Yo Ma). It’s a tired, conventional set-up for a documentary, but the sporadic chats with the bandmates help bring them out of their leader’s shadow (the film is ostensibly about him) and define their personalities, giving some heft to the few band discussions the filmmaker highlights. However, the strongest sequences come from the fly-on-the-wall portions, particularly the show performances. Punch Brothers often talk about being a single unit, about being democratic — though everyone generally knows that Chris is the leader, a burden they endure when they have a problem and worry he might react sensitively — but it only becomes most apparent when they’re working through their compositions on stage. It’s there that you see the passion, and most importantly, the unity. The voyage culminates at Lincoln Center in New York, and it’s strangely moving to see how much the band has grown: songs sound smoother and the general atmosphere is pleasant, enthusiastic smiles gracing each face frequently. Meatto deserves credit for subtly building to this final gig; from the comparatively insecure snippets of earlier shows to this extended, confident performance, it really makes a considerable impact.
“How To Grow A Band” still feels a bit slight due to its adherence to general documentary formula (interviews/archival footage, verite for good measure, call it a day) and its tendency to ignore moments of inner disarray in favor of telling the story of the little band that could. It’s still a pretty entertaining watch, though, and a good argument for the band if you’ve never heard them before. [C+]