Waltzing with Wilco


One night during college, I dragged a group of friends to a Chicago cinema to catch a rare showing of The Band’s classic concert film, The Last Waltz. I’d seen the Scorsese-directed, star-packed movie several times before, but never on a huge screen with a serious sound system; I figured this was the closest I could come to actually being at the Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving in 1976.

But no matter how clear the picture or crisp the music, the experience couldn’t really compare. Because instead of being surrounded by thousands of fans thrilled to be a part of history in the making – even after a generous serving of turkey with all the fixings – I found myself in a nearly empty theater flanked by a couple of popcorn-munching classmates. I had to refrain from clapping so as not to wake them from their intermittent naps.

As any experienced concert-goer knows, a lively audience can mean the difference between a lackluster event and a memorable night. Sometimes, it can even be more important than the band’s actual performance; if you see others having fun, you’re probably going to join in regardless of what’s happening onstage. But a stoic crowd can mar even the best set.

In some ways, concert films one-up the live-concert experience. They skip over the boring banter and dull song renditions, culling only the best moments and showing them from a vantage point you probably couldn’t get as an attendee. But you lose a lot of good with the bad, particularly that all-important element of crowd engagement. Such was the case during the premiere of Wilco’s new concert/tour film, Ashes of American Flags, a few weeks ago in Chicago.

I didn’t quite know what to expect as I took my seat for the sold-out screening at the historic Music Box Theater; Wilco shows are typically fun affairs, especially in the band’s hometown. But as the first performance (“Side With the Seeds”) began, I could tell this wouldn’t be quite the same celebration.

Although the fans who’d secured tickets for the premiere were clearly hardcore supporters, they (OK, we) sure weren’t acting like it. There was barely a stir in the theater, save for some scattered, embarrassed applause. (“I thought people would be singing along,” my girlfriend said.) I’m not saying I wanted some Rocky Horror Picture Show-type interactivity, but this definitely didn’t seem like the way to enjoy the proceedings, especially at a premiere for which the line had snaked down the block. Even if the band weren’t there to accept the appreciation, the film’s directors, Brendan Canty (of Fugazi) and Christoph Green, were.

It’s not as if we didn’t have adequate examples of what a Wilco-crazy crowd should act like. The fans in the film are definitely spirited; one at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club even manages to toss her bra to lead singer Jeff Tweedy from a considerable distance. Maybe seeing the action on screen inspired bitterness in the crowd. After all we, the Chicago fans, were supposed to be the ones in the crowd for Wilco’s first concert film.

The band recorded four nights of footage at the city’s Vic Theatre in 2005; the result was a live album, Kicking Television — but the DVD was never released. Had this screening been a chance to relive a show we were actually at (or at least, to get a glimpse of one we missed out on getting tickets for), we might’ve been more eager participants. Instead, we had to watch fans in Tulsa, New Orleans, Mobile, Nashville and Washington, D.C. live it up.

But there’s plenty of good stuff in Ashes of American Flags to override any lingering envy. The performances in the film are predictably great, as Wilco has remained a strong live band throughout its numerous lineup changes. The songs chosen offer a nice showcase of the group’s range (from the intense “Shot in the Arm,” off Summerteeth, to Sky Blue Sky‘s almost cheery “Impossible Germany”), and Tweedy’s likable personality – not to mention his flashy suit — gets plenty of screen time. On top of that, the movie looks good; we get plenty of close-ups of Nels Cline’s frenetic guitar work, and some special focus on the cloud of fury that is drummer Glenn Kotche.

I have the tendency to compare any concert film I see to The Last Waltz (nothing has quite lived up to that standard so far — save for the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, which is really in a category of its own). It seems an especially good comparison in this case, as I’d guess that Green, Canty, and the members of Wilco have watched it a few times, too. I noticed some definite similarities between the two films, from the stage spacing and New Orleans-style horn arrangements to the declarations about the toughness of “the road”. One major, positive difference: Neil Diamond does not appear in Ashes of American Flags.

In both films there’s an effort not only to document the live concert experience, but to give an inside look at the personalities within the band. At times, this can yield interesting information, as when we learn that Garth Hudson would only join The Band on the condition that he could give the rest of the members music lessons, or that Kotche and Cline essentially injure themselves every night while playing.

But give a musician enough camera time and he’s bound to start philosophizing. The Last Waltz does a good job of reining this in, focusing mainly on historical and/or entertaining anecdotes (the ’70s outfits and décor definitely don’t hurt). There are a few meandering speeches in Ashes of American Flags that could’ve benefited from further editing – but maybe they will become more appealing as the film ages.

In any case, I don’t think the filmgoing crowd’s generally subdued nature had anything to do with the film’s quality. So why didn’t we participate more? The filmmakers had one philosophy when asked during the post-screening discussion: We were too sober. It’s a fair point, as you can bet that the appreciative audiences in the film were fueled by beer and other intoxicants. Trouble was, the Music Box doesn’t sell alcohol, and I haven’t pre-partied for a movie since college (The Last Waltz was also a sober excursion).

I’ll certainly keep it in mind for the next time I head out to see a concert film, though. With any luck, I’ll get to see someone throw her bra at the projectionist before the credits roll.