The apotheosis of a very good band, Sam Jones’ I Am Trying to Break Your Heart begs the question of whether merely very good bands deserve to be deified. Then again, Jones is hardly to blame for the band’s myth-making vicissitudes, or his own good fortune. Intending to shoot a documentary about the making of critical fave Wilco’s newest album, he found himself handed—gift-wrapped with a bow on top—a classic three-act narrative, replete with surprise turns, stunning rejections, and an emblematic clash with Corporate Rock. If this movie had been scripted, it would have been dismissed as an exasperating cliché.
By now, the story behind Wilco’s latest release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is firmly etched in indie music lore as a delicious example of big-label cluelessness. Given $85,000 to record an album with complete autonomy by their label, AOL Time Warner’s Reprise Records, Wilco emerged with a dense, sprawling collection—an ambitious, but not unexpected, progression of their increasingly lush sound. The suits naturally recoiled. Confronted by a record with no identifiable singles, and racked by internal turmoil and corporate shuffling, Reprise sold the album back to the band and let them shop it to other labels.
The rejection captured the imagination of the music press, and Wilco found themselves the poster boys for the evils of a bottom-line ethos. The publicity only helped and, soon enough, the band signed to a new label. There was no lack of irony in the turn of events: Wilco tapped from an array of suitors Nonesuch Records, a label also owned by Time Warner. The price paid for the album ended up being three times more than the original pact with Reprise.
Had Wilco’s fortunes not attracted substantial press—or if the band’s path had been straighter—this movie most likely would not have seen the light of day. Jones, a photographer and commercial director by trade, may have a knack for the indelible cityscape, but he lacks the sensibility to give shape to his material. The stark black and white notwithstanding, the documentary evinces an unfortunate absence of imagination—so unlike the record it celebrates.
The movie takes its name from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s opening track. A seven-minute sonic epic, it is heard as a stripped-down ditty early in the picture, a fascinating aural glimpse of the evolution of a song. Other tracks from the album are heard throughout the film, in various states of deconstruction and rejiggering. The snippets of the different versions are fascinating, but the movie doesn’t show nearly enough of these creative sessions. It would have been fascinating to witness in detail how the band went about the meticulous task of recasting their tuneful pop into an album of discordant prettiness.
The omission aside, the movie should be a treat for Wilco fans. There’s rehearsal and concert footage galore, and it’s all wonderful stuff. Wilco’s work has its holes—lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics at their worst can be jejune in that free-association sort of way—but the portrait that emerges here is of a band in peak form, boasting a dedicated audience and critical huzzahs. The movie may suffer from creative anemia, but it has sense enough of its raison d’être, and the performance sequences carry the day.
Confident as the band is in its abilities, its Foxtrot sessions are not without hiccups. Tweedy is portrayed as a sensitive soul prone to heaving his lunch when the pressure and its accompanying migraines hit. The acknowledged head of the group, Tweedy wryly notes that every album he’s ever been involved with, from his days with alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo to his current band, had been predicted by critics and supporters to be The One that breaks through.
After Reprise’s rebuff of the album, the typically stoic Tweedy admits with refreshing candor to an immediate feeling of rejection. More drama comes in the form of band member Jay Bennett’s departure from the band. The acrimonious exit is ham-handedly foreshadowed early in the movie with dutiful clips of band members swearing by the band’s collaborative methods. Later, an aggrieved Bennett, the band’s co-songwriter and a dead ringer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, says he was asked to leave because Tweedy felt threatened by his growing influence in the band. Tweedy and his band mates, for their part, sound relieved that he’s gone. For all the hints at tensions, however, the movie conspicuously never does offer any insight into the rift, or a clue as to how the band members feel about each other.
If Jones gives too little attention to the band’s dynamics, he perhaps gives too much to the David vs. Goliath subtext. Wilco’s battles with the label may give the movie (and reviewers) an easy hook, but the self-congratulation leads to a loss of perspective. Yes, their triumph is wonderful, but it’s hardly a revolution. They may not be Creed or Incubus, but Wilco ain’t exactly the smallest band in the world either. And when you get David Fricke, senior editor of Rolling Stone, going off about the clueless execs with their gold-plated cell phones, you can only chortle at his and the movie’s lack of self-awareness. (How many times has Wilco graced the cover of that counter-cultural bastion? How many times has Britney?)
At once limpid and supple, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot deservedly commands attention. If only the same could be said of the movie. Simply along for the ride, Jones lets the material shape his purposes, rather than vice versa. Perhaps the emergence of a clear narrative was a bit of a curse. There are some hints (those stunning skylines, the random bits of loopy humor) that the movie Jones wanted to make would’ve been more impressionistic—more like the album it dotes on. Such an effort could have ended up a pointless doodle, but we’ll never know. The band’s tribulations got in the way, and, ever the photographer, Jones just couldn’t avert his gaze.
Caught in the maelstrom is the band itself, a group of dedicated, unassuming musicians who managed to make one of 2002’s most ambitious records. They’ve exhibited a self-indulgent streak before (see Being There, a great CD spread out over two discs), but this album shows an exponential increase in aesthetic aspiration. For all its exploratory doodlings, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is actually a cozy and accessible listen. Radiohead has been invoked as a reference point in reviews, but Tweedy believes too much in the primacy of the song for the blips and drones to fully take over—the plangent pop core never does give way to the experimental flourishes. That Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an American record executive’s idea of unmarketable, avant garde dreck is what’s truly depressing about the whole affair.