Ask any successful documentary filmmaker how drama is made from real-life events and you're likely to hear words like "luck" and "serendipity" somewhere in the response. There's no substitute for being in the right place at the right time no matter what the subject matter may be.
Director Mark Meatto's first stroke of luck with his documentary How to Grow a Band came when producer Mike Bohlmann asked him to do a test shoot of a new band at a tiny club in New York City. A childhood friend of Bohlmann's named Gabe Witcher was playing fiddle in the band, which turned out to be the Punch Brothers — led by young mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, formerly of the platinum-selling neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek. Anyone who has heard Nickel Creek cover Radiohead or The Jackson 5 knows that Thile is unconcerned with adhering to tradition. As the Punch Brothers, Thile and company were about to push the boundaries associated with American roots music.
The artistic leap captured in How to Grow a Band was tied to upheaval in both Thile's personal and professional lives. He went through a difficult divorce before departing from Nickel Creek, a band he co-founded when he was 8 years old. Thile responded to the turmoil by writing a 40-minute suite in four movements called "The Blind Leaving the Blind" that fuses folk and classical music. It became the centerpiece of the Punch Brothers' first album Punch and the primary focus of the documentary as the band goes on tour before the album comes out and faces audiences (and concert promoters) who aren't necessarily ready for something new.
The film is divided into four sections to reflect the structure of Thile's ambitious piece, but the emphasis throughout is on the mystery of band dynamics. Thile rounded up some of the finest young acoustic musicians in the world for the Punch Brothers. In the film, guitarist Chris Eldridge likens the experience of the band's first practice to "falling in love with a girl" and "finding your soul mate." But how does a band maintain creative democracy when its leader, still in his twenties, may already be the finest mandolin player of all time — and has the drive and vision to match? Over the course of the film, Meatto fades into the background just enough to deliver a fly-on-the-wall portrait of that conflict from all points of view.
Meatto's unobtrusive presence came in part from his decision to shoot and record sound mostly by himself with minimal gear, which also gives the film a nice homespun feel. And it sets up the film's dramatic peak — a hugely successful Punch Brothers show at Lincoln Center's The Allen Room in New York, for which Meatto switches to a six-camera HD shoot and state-of-the-art sound. Suddenly there's no question why Thile, the Punch Brothers and other creative artists live with all the strife and uncertainty. "I'm trying to be more than I am naturally," Thile says at the end of the film. Exactly. — KEN KORMAN