I play Music.... I am a Musician.
And, I guess that is why I'm always interested in behind the scenes docs about musicians. I'll often find myself watching ones with artists I don't like- Aeorosmith or Elton John for instance- because I guess I'm semi in tune with the creative process so a behind the scenes look at an artist is almost always interesting. Wilco is a band I half-like. I really enjoy their downbeat, "heart on the sleeve" folky stuff, but I'm not into their more jangly upbeat rockin' numbers. In other words I prefer Nick Drake to The Replacements.
I am Trying to Break Your Heart is about the making of Wilco's last album, the critically lauded "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". Things start out innocuous enough, even lackadaze and happy as the band is recording in their own loft and discussing how they are exploring a new sonic and songwriting landscape and how great it is to have the freedom, no pressure from producers or the record company. Naturally, you know things aren't going to go smoothly. I mean, otherwise what would be the point of making the film?
The focus is singer songwriter Jeff Tweedy. Despite the statement that the band is making the album more collaboratively, only guitarist/keyboardist Jay Bennett seems to be on any real song shaping level (and is credited as a co-writer of several of the songs), but perhaps the film shows more of him for a good reason, by the end, he will be kicked out of the band. But that isn't even the beginning of their troubles...
First, they have to tackle mixing the album, which proves a bit more cumbersome than they thought. And, at $1000 a day in the studio, there isn't really time to sit around and be indecisive. So, after stating how great it is not to have a producer looking over their shoulders, they bring in producer Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth) to help them mix and shape the record and talk turns to how great it is to have an outsiders view. Everyone's happy and their manager continues to push how it is their creative pinnacle, the album they were meant to make, their shining moment. And, then, around forty-five minutes into the hour and a half film, they turn in the album to the record company...
What follows is a odd tale of an album met with silence and skepticism from the company that owns it. When the band refuse to change a note, they are unceremoniously dropped from thier label. They begin on a supposed creative pinnacle and on the verge of releasing and touring for their most personal record to being without a label or an album. In an odd coincidence their chief supporter at the label (Reprise) left the day before their album was turned in. In an even odder turn of events, the band and their album is eventually signed to Nonesuch Records, a label owned by Time Warner, who also owns Reprise. Not only were they dropped and then bought again by the same parent company, but Time Warner buys "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" for three times the money they orginally paid to produce it.
Usually music docs stick to the dynamics of touring, like Dylan's Don't Look Back, Sonic Youth's The Year Punk Broke, the Stone's Gimmie Shelter, or Radiohead's Meeting People is Easy. And there are docs like this and Imagine that give a look at the recording process. For a documentary about an album and a band that had such a fragmented ride in getting through all the drama that erupted, you actually dont learn too much. There is the usual stuff, songs played here and there, the guys recording, goofing off, talking head stuff from the engineers, their manger, some label people and such. But, when it comes to the actual details, why long time band member and supposed collaborator Jay Bennett was let go?, what exactly went on at the label?, and most of all, just who are these guys anyway?, is left with only brief shallow sketches and sound bites.
Really, only Tweedy is given some personality. The band sort of revolves around him, except for the more assertive, sensitive, and Philip Seymor Hoffmanish Bennett. Tweedy just comes off as your usual bi-polar either gentle, shy and mopey or upbeat and smiling singer/songwriter who sometimes finds it hard to articulate when he's not singing. A good example comes backstage at a solo performance where various hangers on ask him to describe the new Wilco album. Tweedy's shoe-gazing mumbled response is , "It's ummmm,... It's got a lot of the drums and holes... and holes in the songs in it.", and then he darts out of the room. Given plastered schmoozy smiles in the room, you would too. But, as far as having a life, he's the only band member we see with one, be it signing the new contract, out on the road, or with his family at Wendy's.
First time film maker Sam Jones (who although a first time film maker apparently felt the need to tack "A Film By Sam Jones" onto the already long title.) initially started the doc because he wanted to make a film about the entire process of making an album, writing, recording, packaging, taking it on the road, and such. With the cataclysm that erupted, Jones obviously got more than he bargained for and it shows. He seems ill–prepared and too timid to make a documentary about the troubles that arise. He never gets very deep, is too reserved in his inquiries, like a surgeon unwilling to cut into the skin. We see the band mess with a few songs and record together, the usual observer stuff, but when it comes time to delve into the matters of the band being dropped and the tangled net of a music industry at a loss of how to sell artists who garner huge respect not huge sales, it is just static unimaginative talking head interviews. Maybe its because I listen to unpopular music, but I found anything the interviewees had to say about the industry to be old news. Jones also sort of misses the mark in capturing the songwriting process. While we do see a few songs in different early stages, we also see musical numbers of songs from their past albums, which seems a unnecessary if the film is supposed to be about a specific album. I just would have preferred to see a couple of songs from "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" in different stages, see how they were tinkered into the album versions.
So, while entertaining, I am Trying to Break Your Heart still just seems to skim the surface of the events that occurred. The final message is, in the modern music empire- Sales matter, artistic vision does not- and everyone with a clue already knew that. It should be interesting enough whether you are a fan, musician, or your average Joe, but it isn't perfect. The insights are not as abundant as the musical numbers and the mystery remains as to just what exactly happened. But, music in all of its aspects is a mysterious thing, so maybe it cannot be fully defined. Still one cannot help but think with a little more digging I am Trying to Break Your Heart could have revealed a little bit more.
The DVD: Plexifilm
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Shot on handheld Super 16mm Black and White. The film has the fantastic rough grain that comes with 16mm, somehting I'm a real sucker for. So, lucky for me as a reviewer, I can dispense with any mention of color, or grain, and even sharpness since the film stock is intentionally rough. If you hate grainy photography, this isnt the movie for you. The transfer has a few artifacts in it and some minor edge enhancements, but overall it looks pretty good. The contrast is nice and deep so the black and white photography looks great.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Well, on a doc like this it is all about the sound, isn't it? Audio is great, good sound crew kept everything miked well in the interviews, and most of all, nothing is lost as the band is performing, which comes through quite nicely.
Extras: Disc One- Chapter Selections--- Theatrical trailer--- Commentary by director Sam Jones and Wilco. Nice, jovial and informative commentary. Helps provide some filler for the docs holes.---Disc Two- Extra Footage (56:43). Footage is basically more songs and performances with added extras scenes as bumpers. So, you get more music and some, fun trivial stuff, but no added insights.--- Jeff Tweedy uncut solo performances of two songs, "Sunken Treasure" and "Not for the Season"--- "I Am Trying to Make a Film" making-of featurette (7:04). Basic video recorded interviews with Jones and the band and their manager about the film. Mainly Jones on the pros and cons of doc film making--- 40-page booklet featuring filmmaker's diary, exclusive photos, and liner notes from Rolling Stone's David Fricke.
Conclusion: Certainly if you are any sort of fan of Wilco, this doc is an absolute must. You get a nice behind the scenes look at the band and several versions of Wilco songs, including some unreleased material. As far as being a well-rounded and detailed documentary about either of its subjects- making an album and the corporate music woes- it is just okay, a documentary that falls short of its potential. The DVD presentation is fantastic, two discs, plenty of extras, and a nice trasnfer.