In the opening minutes of the new Wilco documentary, Ashes of American Flags, multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone roams around downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, Polaroid in hand, snapping photographs of old parking lots and buildings. As he notes that Polaroid is discontinuing their line of film, he muses on the passing of an era. “It’s been interesting going around the country and going into small towns, because a lot of what I like to shoot is little details of old downtowns, capturing these little pieces of a fading America with a fading technology.”
Sansone may not have meant the comment to be profound, but it certainly is, particularly in the context of the film. Capturing Wilco performing at five historic venues, Ashes of American Flags is as much about a dying America as it is about the band. No, the band has no agenda in the film, and this is not agitprop filmmaking à la Michael Moore. There are no attempts to rail against the evils of corporate America, though bassist John Stirratt does comment on the “Wal-Martization” of the U.S. This is just a glimpse, both joyous and unintentionally sad, of an era when something more genuine existed.
That assertion — that something beautiful is slowly passing away — both frames the footage of Wilco performing and makes it all the more meaningful. For while the film never says it, the implied commentary is that genuine music, much like the authenticity of small downtowns, is slowly succumbing to rust. Even the venues captured during the documentary — Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the Mobile Civic Center in Mobile, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and the 9:30 Club in D.C. — are monuments of a time when things were not so plastic, shiny, and devoid of character.
But that reality only makes the locales and the music that much more immediate, and Ashes of American Flags is a celebration of their continued existence, not a eulogy for some intangible golden age. This is evident in the footage of the fans, engaging in a ritual that is, for them, every bit as meaningful as a religious service. They huddle under blankets before the show, anxiously waiting for the doors to open. They high-five and raise beers after each song, amazed at what they just heard. A few hang around after the show, hoping to snap a photo of the band walking to the tour bus.
It’s easy to see why a band like Wilco inspires such devotion. They are, quite simply, transcendent on stage, and Ashes of American Flags offers plenty of proof with complete performances (shot in hi-def, no less) of 13 Wilco classics that span from Being There to Sky Blue Sky. Somehow, despite creating a body of work that sounds like a completely different band with each album, Wilco have created their own sound, perhaps unified by the sincerity with which they tackle each influence that shapes their music.
This is particularly true live, as each member of the band adds his own touches to songs that predate their tenure in the band. On “Shot in the Arm”, for example, drummer Glenn Kotche breaks up the robotic pounding of the recorded version with intricate fills. And on “Handshake Drugs”, the slow burning haze of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s guitar outro becomes a furious psychedelic explosion in the hands of guitar virtuoso Nels Cline.
Ashes of American Flags, then, stands in stark contrast to I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the 2003 film by Sam Jones. That film was about Wilco coming apart from the center out, struggling with colliding egos and constantly shifting personnel; this film is about a band that has finally gelled into a mature and cohesive entity. Tweedy has often asserted that this incarnation of the band is the definitive version, and it’s hard to argue with that after watching Flags. The infighting and sniping are gone, replaced by a total commitment to serving the music, both on and off the stage.
Where the film most succeeds, however, is in capturing the realities of being a band on the road. Too often, rock n’ roll documentaries glamorize the behind-the-scenes minutiae of being a “rock star”. Even the cinema verité of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back ignored the tedium of trudging from one city to the next, living in a bubble of seclusion along the way. Even when Dylan wasn’t enjoying himself — such as when being subjected to ridiculous questions from a fawning press — he was always glamorous and amused, even when annoyed.
In Ashes of American Flags, contrarily, we see what it really looks like for the band before and after the show, and it’s often lonesome. There are ample shots of the band emptily staring out the bus window, the evening sun flickering out across their faces. And during one sequence, the band is captured behind the stage after the show. There are no groupies, no bottles of alcohol, and no glamour.
Instead, we see Nels Cline icing his neck, Glenn Kotche icing his hands, and Jeff Tweedy having his throat examined by a doctor. All three are physically exhausted and look relieved to simply have survived the show — and quite a bit worried that they might not hold out during the next. None of this reality, however, detracts from the music. In fact, it’s further proof that the great bands are the ones for whom the music is everything and the lifestyle is just the price to pay for playing that music in front of an audience.
So, while the subtext here is that a more genuine America is slowly slipping away, Ashes of American Flags, ironically, is proof that it’s still very much alive in the small, historic venues that dot the American landscape. Yes, FM radio may be dead. Yes, the record labels are futilely struggling to stay alive. But music — music that’s gritty and real and steeped in the diverse roots of America — is still thriving. And as this gorgeously shot film shows, there is no band that can turn a concert hall into a temple quite like Wilco.