Review by Marcus Gilmer
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Plexifilm DVD
There’s a scene about a half hour into I am Trying to Break Your Heart where now-departed multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett and lead singer Jeff Tweedy have an argument over the transition from “Ashes Of An American Flag” into “Heavy Metal Drummer.” Anyone who has heard the record, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” knows the transition and it’s hard to imagine two talented musicians having such an argument about such a little piece of music. The argument escalates from the definition of passive-aggressive arguments into a straight-on confrontation. After the argument, the camera follows Tweedy into the bathroom of the studio where he’s vomiting.
The scene is straightforward, raw, and unforgiving, refusing to flinch out of sympathy for its subject. This is one of the greatest strengths of Sam Jones’ documentary: he is a fan, but he refuses to angle the documentary in a particular slant to favor the subject. This specific scene, and the entire documentary as a whole, is very reminiscent of a scene in The Beatles’ Let It Be where Paul McCartney and George Harrison have an argument, Paul dictating to George what he should play. The argument culminates in George throwing up his hands and saying, “Fine. I’ll play whatever you want me to play. Just tell me.” The sneer on George’s face says more than his comments ever could.
That’s not to say I am Trying to Break Your Heart shows a great band on the brink of disaster. Instead, it shows a great band on the verge of breakthrough and its struggles. The band fired original drummer Ken Croomer the day before Jones and his crew showed up to film. Later, halfway through filming, Bennett and Wilco parted ways, an occurrence foreshadowed by the aforementioned scene. And then came the problems with the record label.
By now, Wilco’s legendary story is just that: legend. To recap: Reprise Records, a division of Warner Brothers record, was not at all happy with Wilco’s record, dropped Wilco from the label and sold the band back the record. Wilco posted the record on their website, toured constantly (particularly and bravely in the days and weeks following 9-11), signed with Nonesuch Records, another division of Warner Brothers Records who essentially paid for the record twice, and then released the record in April 2002. The record debuted at #13 on the Billboard charts and, to this day, the record has sold over 500,000 copies and Wilco continues to sell-out shows all over the world.
But the movie isn’t about the record. Jones captures the drama on camera, even the moment when the band’s manager, Tony Margherita, gets the phone call from the record company and negotiates the band’s release. As incredible as the film is, even this great story has incurred some skepticism. In his great review of the film on indie-rock website Pitchforkmedia.com, Rob Mitchum suggested somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that maybe this was all a conspiracy theory to boost record sales.
One of the greatest triumphs of the documentary is the electrifying way in which Jones captures Wilco’s live performances. In November, 2001, I attended Wilco’s show at Tipitina’s Uptown Nightclub in New Orleans. I was right up at the stage and was completely blown away by the performance. Wilco, like Radiohead, is able to take songs that are sonically layered and transform them into full-blown rock-outs at live shows. And this where the DVD really excels.
When I first saw I am Trying to Break Your Heart at the New Orleans Film Festival last fall, from my vantage point in the small, crowded theater, you could see the silhouettes of movie goers’ heads bobbing up and down in time to the music of the performance scenes. The Dolby Digital sound track is incredibly clear and is a perfect example of how DVD can enhance the experience. It’s as close as you can come to experiencing Wilco at a live show without having to fight the crowds for a space at the stage.
What is also great about the film is that it is the latest of a series of documentaries on “career musicians” that heralds back to the great music films of the 60’s and 70’s. While that generation was given Don’t Look Back (Bob Dylan), Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones), and The Last Waltz (The Band), this generation has been given Pleasure + Pain (Ben Harper), Bittersweet Motel (Phish), and now this.
Jones is able to capture intimate moments for the band, like the scene on the road where Tweedy, his wife, and sons, are trying to figure out what to order at a Wendy’s and Jeff realizes he has no cash and has to hit an ATM. Later, a weary Tweedy rifles through stacks of papers to sign the band on to Nonesuch Records. The scene is immediately followed by Jeff looking much more comfortable, playing his guitar. The band, all four members, are reluctant folk heroes, seeing their triumph as simply doing a job. There are no egos to deal with, even in the delicate and uncomfortable interview segments with Tweedy and Bennett after Bennett has been fired from the band. Again, Jones allows the camera to roll, refusing to flinch and refusing to offer a bias to either party.
David Fricke’s liner notes are indispensable, especially for the Wilco novice. His own analysis and love of Wilco gives his review a certain charm, the same charm that permeates Jones’ film.
By the time I saw the film for the first time in September, 2002, I had been living with the “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” record for a year. The alternate takes of the songs, featured in the film and even more on the bonus materials on the DVD, are most interesting to hear, especially the versions done before the departure of Bennett, long considered the main pop-oriented influence of the band. Whatever, the case, Jones’ use of music in the film adds to the mood of the film rather than detract from it, a difficult line to walk sometimes.
As a documentary, I am Trying to Break Your Heart excels at giving us a fly-on-the-wall view of what it’s like for an on-the-brink-of-stardom band dealing with the trials of trying to make the record they want. Even if you aren’t a fan of Wilco, the documentary is essential viewing for anyone who has ever complained about the state of music, be it the travesty that is MTV, the failed marketing of great bands, or just general disgust with the music industry.