‘How to Grow a Band’: … or not

April 16, 2012

“How to Grow a Band” is a perfect example of a missed opportunity: a front-row seat at the creation of a new artistic venture, in a film that never does more than skim the surface.

Director Mark Meatto apparently had exceptional access to superstar bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile (pronounced THEE-lee) at a turning point in his career. He’d just gotten two divorces: from his wife and from his long-time (and Grammy-winning) band, Nickel Creek.

As Meatto followed him, Thile had just put together a new group, the Punch Brothers, as a vehicle for his new musical ideas. Thile wanted to cast off the stylistic shackles of bluegrass and apply a more formal approach to his song-writing. Specifically, he assembled a string quintet – mandolin, violin, guitar, banjo and upright bass – and began writing multi-movement pieces that lasted up to 40 minutes, incorporating both lyrics and improvisation, upbeat tempos mixed with slower, spacier sections.

Then, with Meatto and his camera crew in tow, Thile took the new music to Great Britain – a hotbed of fanatics for American bluegrass – and sprung it on audiences in Glasgow and London.

The response was underwhelming. As the audience sat on its hands at the end of the piece in Glasgow, someone shouted, “Play some bluegrass.”

This leads to a minor tiff as the band drives around London, as bassist Greg Garrison talks about how uncomfortable the evening was, while Thile defends performing the piece. The issue is an intriguing one: Are they artists or performers? Are they there solely to entertain the audience? Or should they, as artists, challenge audience expectations by playing new music, rather than old favorites? And what if that new music sucks?

But it doesn’t get discussed much even during that semi-tense moment. Indeed, that moment of conflict is really the only bit of drama in the whole film. When the musicians speak to the camera, it’s usually to discuss how magical it is to play with Thile; only occasionally does anyone other than Garrison express concern that, just maybe, the music is pretentious and off-putting.

There’s obviously something going on here, involving Thile’s quest to make music that is more serious and challenging than traditional bluegrass or any of its modern offshoots. Yet Thile doesn’t really talk about it in anything more than the vaguest terms.

There’s also a story to be told about Thile himself, who began playing mandolin at 5 and won a national mandolin championship at 12. There seems to be a serious tape archive of Thile as an elementary-school kid, playing with dexterity and speed of a much older instrumentalist and performing publicly with almost alarming poise. Those clips are truly astonishing – but they come and go too quickly.

Indeed, the film’s most dramatic moments – the break-up of both Nickel Creek and Thile’s marriage – are barely mentioned, except in passing as the scene-setter at the start of the film. Oh, and Thile tells audiences that his suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” was inspired by his divorce. But there’s no mention of why Nickel Creek broke up or whether that and the split from his wife were related.

This film doesn’t say. Instead, it devotes a lengthy segment to a performance of Thile’s lumbering suite at the Jazz at Lincoln Center space.

In the end, you come away knowing almost as little about Chris Thile and his music as when the film started. “How to Grow a Band” misses its chance to enlighten, choosing instead to promote.

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