"My first day was January 13, 2001, and the record was supposed to be out July 4th," says filmmaker Sam Jones, who is working on I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, an upcoming documentary about the making of Wilco's fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. "I figured I'd get a recording session, a mixing session, and, boom, the record's out."
Instead Jones found himself stuck in a year in the life of a band; one which included turnover of two members (drummer Ken Coomer left in January 2001 and guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett departed in the summer) and a surprising break with a label that underscores some alarming trends within the record industry.
Jones approached the project innocently enough. "I've been a music film fan for a long time, and I just started thinking about the idea of being around when seminal albums were being made," he says. "I saw a film about the Joshua Tree, where some filmmakers went back and talked about the making of the record. And it was really kind of boring, because it was after the fact, and everyone had all this hindsight that it was a great record. So I thought, what would it have been like during the making of Exile on Main Street or Pet Sounds. I wanted to find a band that fit the traditional real band, rather than something that was put together a corporate act or solo act or something. And Wilco struck me as like that, that spirit of The Basement Tapes, a band that has it going in an honest sense."
Jones sent the band a letter in late 2000, asking if a new project was to begin soon and asking permission to be a fly on the wall during its construction. A visit to Chicago and a meeting with frontman Jeff Tweedy later, Jones saw a viable project. Two weeks later Jones got a call inviting him to a January recording session, learning the day of his arrival that Coomer had left.
In addition to interviews with the departed Bennett, Jones filmed an interview with Howie Klein, former head of Reprise Records, Wilco's ex-label. Late last year, Wilco took Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Nonesuch after a creative dispute with Reprise. "There was really no one at the helm [of Reprise] when that happened to say, 'Wait a minute, we don't do that to this band,'" Jones says. "I don't want to make it a soap opera, but at the same time it's a huge part of their year. I think it shows how far away from music these giant record companies have gotten. They think, 'We're in good shape, we have Bruce Springsteen on our roster.' They don't understand that Bruce Springsteen languished in virtual anonymity for two albums."
As for the other content, Jones shot footage of the band's final show with Bennett, before 40,000 fans in Chicago last summer. Unprepared for the news of Bennett's departure, Jones then took cameras out on the road as the reconfigured Wilco debuted the material on the road last fall. But Jones suggests that the off-stage material might be most interesting. "You can get live footage anywhere," he says. "We've all seen the multicamera shoot of a band playing live. But Jeff is a guy that plays the guitar and sings all the time, wherever he is. Whether it's a hotel room or his house or sitting around the rehearsal studio. We've managed to capture these acoustic performances that really feel like you're sitting in on his thought process. We also managed to capture some of the writing process, where Jeff spread out some notebooks of lyrics and tried to put a song together while we filmed him. And we've been in the right place at the right time. One thing in particular, the manager took a phone call from the record label that started the whole label thing rolling. We just happened to be there, which really gives it a cinema verite sense."
Jones is close to cinching a deal with Plexifilm to put the film in theaters this summer, and he plans to release it on DVD by August or September. In the meantime, fans can visit I Am Trying to Break Your Heart's official Web site, www.wilcofilm.com. Having shot nearly ninety hours of film, he is making cutting room scraps available for download on the site, rotating out clips every few weeks.
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is due in stores in April.