Documaker Mark Meatto strikes an effective balance between focusing on ambitious musicianship and stealing sidelong glances at internecine tensions in “How to Grow a Band.” The pic offers an intimately up-close look at the formation of Punch Brothers, a progressive bluegrass ensemble begun by mandolinist Chris Thile after the break-up of the Grammy-winning acoustic trio Nickel Creek. Devotees of folk and bluegrass — and, of course, diehard Nickel Creek fans — are the natural audience for this leisurely paced docu, which should score respectably as a niche homevid release after limited theatrical playdates.
Drawing on archival material, Meatto briskly limns Thile’s salad days as a musical prodigy — he appears almost hilariously self-confident in a vintage clip that shows him performing with Nickel Creek at age 9 — then intros the mandolinist as a restless twentysomething shortly after the 2007 end of his 18-year musical partnership with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. (For the record, Nickel Creek is officially “on hiatus,” not defunct.)
On his own personally as well as professionally, Thile writes “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” an elegy for his failed marriage that he describes, with a more or less straight face, as a 40-minute bluegrass string quintet in four movements. His burning desire to record and publicly perform this idiosyncratic composition appears to be the prime motivation for Thile’s inviting four world-class musicians — fiddler Gabe Witcher, acoustic guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Greg Garrison and banjo player Noam Pikelny — to form Punch Brothers.
Although Meatto takes an unabashedly admiring view of Thile and his bandmates, there’s nothing reverential about “How to Grow a Band.” Indeed, the docu occasionally is quite funny, particularly when, early during its first European tour, the group performs “Blind Leaving the Blind” before less-than-enthused Glasgow concertgoers.
Thile complains that the audience was primed to expect something else by advertisements promising “hot bluegrass.” But other members of the group, most notably Garrison, gently suggest the 40-minute composition might be better received by a live audience if it were broken up into shorter segments.
And so it goes: Despite Thile’s insistence during oncamera interviews that he sees Punch Brothers as a democracy, it’s clear his bandmates regard him as, for better or worse, first among equals. While the group in general and its string quintet in particular generate increasingly warmer responses, leading to a triumphant New York performance that is the pic’s musical centerpiece, there is muted dissension within the ranks. Even for viewers who know nothing about the history of the Punch Brothers, the eventual replacement of one band member will come as no surprise.
Which is not to say that Thile comes off as some kind of dictatorial prima donna. “How to Grow a Band” is most fascinating as it tactfully charts the sort of artistic and philosophical differences that can eventually undermine any group endeavor, even among seemingly like-minded collaborators. Bassist Edgar Meyer, one of Thile’s friends and sometime collaborators, goes so far as to suggest that any band composed of strong-willed, musically adventurous individuals probably should expect a short lifespan.
Punch Brothers continues to exist as a group; it released a new album in February 2012, and contributed to the soundtrack of “The Hunger Games.” But Meatto’s docu none too subtly hints that Meyer’s words may yet prove prophetic.
Appropriately enough, the sound mix is excellent throughout. Incidentally, true Nickel Creek fans aren’t likely to find “The Blind Leaving the Blind” at all off-putting, inaccessible or even unfamiliar.