Shot in the Arm

Wilco may have been abandoned by its label, but it still had its fans

That tour was the beginning of the end of a very long year for Wilco; Nonesuch Records signed the band and released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in April. But it still isn't over. Not yet. Thanks to Sam Jones' documentary, the band is, in a way, living through those rough times again, on pristine 16mm black-and-white film. Jones arrived at Wilco's loft studio in Chicago the day after Coomer left the group; his drum kit was still set up, ready to go. The fun was just starting.

And it was fun, for a while, especially for the filmmaker; Wilco is one of his favorite bands, and as a musician himself, he was happy to have the chance to watch them work. "I'm fine with the film, as far as how it represents what Sam saw," Tweedy says, noting that if the band had been involved in editing ("a terrible idea," he adds), it might have turned out differently. "I think it's Sam's movie, and I think that he did a pretty honest portrayal of the band that he liked, you know?"

That's where I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is at its strongest, when Jones is just standing back, taking it all in as the band runs through a rocked-up version of Yankee's "Kamera." Or when he's peeking over Tweedy and Bennett's shoulders as they argue over a mix of "Heavy Metal Drummer," followed by an uncomfortable image of Tweedy puking in the bathroom. Or charting the progress as "Poor Places" grows from bedroom folk to Knitting Factory noise. Moments such as these recall the best rock-and-roll films, maybe D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back or Jean Luc Goddard's Sympathy for the Devil.

Director Sam Jones thought Wilco--Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt--oughta be in pictures. So he put 'em in one.
Sam Jones
Director Sam Jones thought Wilco--Glenn Kotche, Leroy Bach, Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt--oughta be in pictures. So he put 'em in one.
Sam Jones, left, films as Jeff Tweedy tries to break his heart.
Curtis Harvey
Sam Jones, left, films as Jeff Tweedy tries to break his heart.

Which is exactly the kind of film Jones aspired to. He got the idea for making a film about Wilco after seeing the band play in New York in late 1999: "I had the thought that someone must be doing a film on these guys, and if they're not, then someone should." A year later, he flew to Chicago to approach Tweedy and manager Tony Margherita about the film over a long dinner. "By the time the dinner was over, Jeff realized I was pretty serious about it," Jones says, "and that I wanted to make not just a fan following them around with a DV camera, but I wanted to make a feature-length, serious film."

It certainly is a serious film; at times, too serious. But that was unavoidable, given what Jones caught with his camera, and all of the drama that happened when he wasn't around. And, as Stirratt says, "A tranquil year in the life of Wilco probably wouldn't have been very interesting for people."

Halfway through the film, Margherita talks to Reprise about the future for Wilco and its album. Even though you can't hear what Margherita is hearing, it's clear there isn't a future for either of them, not at Reprise. "Ironically, there were more single-sounding songs than we've probably ever had on a record," Stirratt says now. (But then, Tweedy points out that those songs--"Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Pot Kettle Black"--would've only been singles "30 years ago. In Malaysia.") "I don't know if they ever even really listened to the second half of it. They couldn't get past 'Trying to Break Your Heart,' I'm sure."

If Reprise couldn't get past "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's are-you-in-or-out? opener, Wilco couldn't move forward with Bennett still in the band. Just as they couldn't have made the album with Coomer behind the drums. Bennett claims, "Jeff wanted his band back," and that he was fired before he could quit; the rest of the group, judging by their comments in the film, just wanted a happier place to go to work. As for Coomer, Tweedy has often said that he was holding Wilco back a bit, that he wasn't quite equipped for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's subtler songs. "Each situation was handled separately, but with the same intention of being good for the band and good for the music and, ironically, maybe even good for us and them," Stirratt says. "It was totally stressful and rough, but sometimes you have to experience pain to get to a better place, personally and musically."

Jones, however, insists he wasn't aware of the impending personnel change until it happened, and he was left trying to figure out what to do with his movie, since one of the main characters had walked off the set without explanation.

"I mean, I attributed some of those arguments just to typical frustrations involved with mixing that much material and trying to make a record, you know?" Jones says. "I think that's a tough thing to do for anybody. I didn't think it would have that disastrous of consequences. But there were also a lot of things under the surface. I think the band is very polite on the surface, and you wouldn't know a lot of the disagreements if you weren't right there in the room when they happened."

He takes great pains to put the audience in the room, watching as Bennett (looking like Phillip Seymour Hoffman under a mess of dreadlocks) slowly backs himself out of the group. It's only when he takes the camera out of the room and focuses it on Rolling Stone's David Fricke or Chicago Tribune pop-music critic Greg Kot or, all too often, Margherita, that I Am Trying to Break Your Heart begins to sag. That's when the film goes so far behind the music that it winds up banging on the front door, trying to find a way back inside. If the first half inspires people to make music, the second makes you wonder why anyone ever does.

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