Personally, I had never heard of Chris Thile or his former band Nickel Creek before viewing Mark Meatto's How to Grow a Band, a documentary about Thile's post-breakup (of both his band and marriage) efforts to rebuild his musical persona via a radically different angle on the roots-based music he's played since childhood. Thile picked up the mandolin at the age of five and, if the testimonials of such musical luminaries as John Paul Jones and Yo-Yo Ma are to be believed, he's a musician of uncommon talent. Now at a crossroads in his career and personal life, the mandolinist finds himself writing a 45-minute, classical bluegrass string quintet for his new band The Punch Brothers.
Meatto's film spends a lot of time intimately peering in on Thile and his bandmates' interpersonal relationships as they tour this new music around the country. For all that focus, there are only hints of tension followed by a few terse band deliberations about how to make the difficult music being played more palatable to audiences. Various members of the band think that some compromises can be made to audiences; Thile disagrees and shuts down every time the topic is broached. Even with Meatto's cameras capturing discussions that exclude Thile from the conversation, the overall effect of all this polite disagreement is a rather toothless reading of the conflict present in something like the far superior Sam Jones documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
Fortunately, the film knows what to do when it's time to witness what the band does best. It would be a complete disservice to the audience if, when conveying the four movements of their "The Blind Leaving the Blind" quintet, the standard music doc practice of cutting away from the performances was employed too prematurely. To Meatto's credit, he knows when to stay in the moment; there are extensive sequences throughout the film of the band playing the piece and the film is even divided into sections that relate to each movement.
How to Grow a Band sheds any reservations one might have about the individual personalities within the band and truly comes alive in these moments. Just like the music being featured, it's a difficult concoction that only periodically reaches for resolution.
How to Grow a Band screens at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Friday, June 29th and Saturday, June 30th at 7pm and 9pm. More info available here.
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