Wilco are a rare bird in our current music industry climate, caught deep in the no man's land between platinum success and grassroots cultishness. That is one of several reasons that Sam Jones' documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which opens in New York City today and Los Angeles and Chicago on August 2nd, is such a fascinating feature film.
Wilco have moved deeper into the solar system than other creatures of their ilk. Since the mid-Seventies, numerous rock & roll-minded bands that don't subscribe to genre or subgenre (i.e. punk, New Wave, etc.) have had one goal in mind, to become a Big(ger) Star, rather than a Bad(der)finger, burning brighter than the former without flaming out like the latter. It's an unofficial credo for indie rock, and with those bands as guide posts, as opposed to more culturally commercial paths taken by (or forced upon) the Rolling Stones and Beatles, independent-minded rock has fared better of late when it steers clear of The Man and his machinery.
Much has been made of Jones' serendipitous capture of Wilco's tumultuous year. He planned to be a camera-toting fly on the wall for a month or so, while the album was recorded. He missed the departure of a founding member (drummer Ken Coomer), but arrived to capture band tiffs, the departure of a second key member (multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett), a split with their label, signing with a new label and everything getting back on track . . . roger wilco. Unlike music films of yesteryear, there is, in that thumbnail sketch, a strong narrative drive in Jones' film. From a Greek theater-y sense of foreboding early on -- Bennett marvels at the group's perfect relationship with Reprise, scoring $80,000 to record in its own loft with nary a label hawk peering in from overhead -- to a particularly uncomfortable mixing dispute between Bennett and frontman Jeff Tweedy, Jones captures the drama amid the creativity.
In the end, that drama is tempered with elements of a Marx Brothers farce, captured lovingly in black and white, as Warner Bros. -- the villain, for our purposes -- infamously pays twice for the same record. That corporate gaffe will likely be the core of film's lasting legacy, with comments of bemusement from Tweedy, the band's manager Tony Margherita, and departed Warner/Reprise bigwig Howie Klein (who states that the band never would have been dropped under his lead). But there are other, more interesting, comments upon music found in the film. Earlier this year, Jones explained his inspiration for shooting it. "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 told Rolling Stone. "I saw a film about The Joshua Tree, where some filmmakers talked about the making of the record. 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?' And 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 just struck me as like that. They had the spirit of The Basement Tapes -- a band that has it going in an honest sense."
The corporate battle is the absurdity in the forefront, but perhaps more interesting is how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot fits into today's musical landscape. While Exile and Pet Sounds were hardly best-sellers for the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys, respectively, they were still the Stones and the Beach Boys. Both had safety net of those identities upon which to fall back, should creative indulgences cause them to teeter. Wilco's Wilconess is born from the band's underdog nature (after the Uncle Tupelo break, most placed their bets on Jay Farrar and Son Volt as having the brighter future), Tweedy's left-field charisma and the band's ability to play chicken with their fans, daring to alienate them (read: challenging them) with each album. It's captured in backstage footage of a man asking if the new record will sound more like the mid-tempo pop-country of A.M. or the psychedelic washes of Summer Teeth; his voice gives away his preference for the former, Tweedy's uncomfortable response is that it will sound like neither. And it's captured in crowd footage of fans singing Yankee tracks, despite the fact that the album won't be released for another eight months.
In a way, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart doesn't lend itself to comparisons to other rock and roll films. The film's voyeuristic element is almost strictly creative, leaving little garbage-rooting for Tweedy obsessives, other than his penchant for gargantuan quantities of Diet Coke and cigarettes. The film is closer in spirit to Hans Namuth's series of photographs of Jackson Pollack at work, revealing the bare bones of a creation and the myriad layers of creativity that are gradually incorporated onto that frame. And this is the film's true heart, not so much the bottling of lightning, but rather tracing it back to the electricity discharged between clouds.
A New York Times story several years ago posed the possibility that Namuth's photographs were an unintentional catalyst in Pollack' destruction. Suggesting that the magic of the creation was the final product, not the sweat, muscle and medium that fused to make it be, these extraneous elements left the artist feeling over-exposed, feeding his self-destructive tendencies. Who knows whether or not a film capturing all of the good and bad that went into the birth of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will influence Wilco's future direction, perhaps making them over-think the process of making music. The band has arguably improved upon each previous album and, unlike numerous non-mainstream forbears (R.E.M. with Murmur or Pavement with Slanted and Enchanted), there isn't a sense among their listeners that their first work will always be the yardstick. Which presents a separate, but related, challenge. "When you make a Wilco record, for some reason the vibe is always in the air that this just has to be our masterpiece," Bennett said earlier this year. "There were times in the studio when the history of the band and the history of the evolution of the band's sound weighed heavy. Like, 'We can't do that, we've done that before.'"
Those pressures are present in the collaboration between Tweedy, Bennett and bassist John Stirratt, keyboardist/guitarist LeRoy Bach and drummer Glenn Kotche, and the tension sparked by these collaborations. But interaction aside, it's always Tweedy that serves as the film's multi-faceted hero: one moment warm, patting out "Heavy Metal Drummer" on a bus accompanied by his son, another seemingly cold, claiming he's "ecstatic" after Bennett's departure. And a stunned Bennett, after his dismissal, perhaps puts it best, saying "a circle can only have one center."
I Am Trying . . . does a nice job writing myth before it becomes so. It's a fascinating companion piece to one of the year's most talked about records. And it asks a lot of viewers: to ignore thirty years and accept that an album is a classic without the benefit of the 20/20 hindsight that has made too-late legends of the Nick Drakes, Velvet Undergrounds and Big Stars of rock history.