It seems unfair to compare How To Grow A Band—a new documentary about former Nickel Creek frontman Chris Thile touring with his new band, Punch Brothers—to D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal Bob Dylan profile, Don’t Look Back. In the same way, it’s unfair, though sometimes irresistible, to compare young musicians to an icon of Dylan’s stature. But the parallels between the two films and the two men’s journeys are hard to deny. Both documentaries center on intense young men in a period of profound transition as they showcase a radical new sound touring abroad—in Thile’s case, supporting an ambitious 40-minute suite called “The Blind Leaving The Blind,” following the dissolution of both Nickel Creek and his marriage. Still, while How To Grow A Band pales in comparison to Don’t Look Back, what music documentary doesn’t?
How To Grow A Band chronicles Thile’s attempts to reinvent himself and his artistry in the wake of personal and professional collapse. Thile pointedly formed another band rather than recruiting backup musicians to tour and record with, but Thile’s success (Nickel Creek won a Grammy and released gold and platinum albums), ambition, and forceful personality make him Punch Brothers’ undeniable leader. Thile’s bandmates are torn between merely fulfilling his musical vision and pushing for a true collaboration of equals, a conflict that provides the film’s central dramatic thrust.
Thile has the charisma, presence, and emotional transparency of a great documentary subject, but How To Grow A Band maintains a respectable distance from its subject that ultimately doesn’t work in its favor. Thile has a unique background as a musical child prodigy, but other than some fascinating clips of him playing with his dad as an angel-faced 10-year-old, that doesn’t really factor into the narrative, nor does Thile’s divorce, as anything other than fodder for his art. How To Grow A Band would make for a nifty, overachieving value-added bonus if bundled together with a future Punch Brothers release as a double-disc DVD/CD set, but as a standalone feature film, it’s hampered by too much reverence and not enough insight.