At least we immediately know who to blame for this mess. It’s right there on the poster: “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: a movie about Wilco by Sam Jones.” Ah. So it was Sam Jones who made one of the most dishonest and boring movies about rock I’ve ever seen.
Who is Sam Jones? Well, he’s a friend of the band, or more likely a desperate, Tweedy-worshipping hanger-on, which is obvious from the movie’s idolatrous tone. He’s also a photographer, which is obvious from the beautiful cityscapes of Chicago and the long, slo-mo shots of the band walking along the water on a grey day, dressed all in black. Much of the wide-angle photography in the film looks fantastic, and if Sam Jones ever makes an all-Chicago version of Koyaanisqatsi, I’ll be there. But that’s beside the point. There’s a lot – a hell of a lot, in fact – that he does badly.
He doesn’t realize, for instance, that presenting a challenging viewpoint doesn’t necessarily equal being anti-Wilco. We all know the story of how the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was dropped from its label, Reprise, and languished in limbo for long months before finally coming out on Nonesuch. We all know that the record execs wanted to change the album, and that they are therefore in the wrong, reneging at the last minute on the tacit “creative freedom” deal they had struck with the band before the recording started. And we all know that record execs are bozos. None of this needs to be explicitly pointed out. What we need is some discussion. We do get short interviews with Reprise executives who say vague and expected things about how the record just didn’t hit them right, but what we get a metric ton of is Wilco-aggrandizing interviews with David Fricke (senior editor of the most corporate magazine in the universe, Rolling Stone, who has the nerve or the cluelessness to go off about evil executives with their “gold plated cell phones”), and with the band itself, and friends of the band, and even other, more complimentary record executives. This is all dry as hell, and goes on far too long. The movie doesn’t seem edited for quality of content, just content. As long as someone is saying something nice about Wilco, it goes in.
Even the interviews with the intelligent and well-spoken Tweedy come off sounding like he’s interviewing himself, as if it’s all rehearsed. A friend is interviewing him, after all. There won’t be any hard questions. He’s free to talk about himself and his vision and his band as if it’s the most important thing in the world, without an ounce of real introspection. This isn’t Tweedy’s fault, I don’t think. Any rock star (egotistical creatures that they are) would jump at the chance at having a whole movie to talk about how great they are, and how put-upon they are. The fault is Jones’s for letting him do it. In the act of trying to make Tweedy look good, he ends up making him look more self-involved and self-important than he is. I’ve heard Tweedy sound very self-effacing at times. Why isn’t that in the movie? There’s nothing even remotely revelatory about a rock star thinking he’s great.
And why oh why is Jay Bennett treated like a dog worthy of nothing but kicking? What did this guy do that was so bad? The movie doesn’t tell us. In one early scene, he and Tweedy have a misinformed argument about the soundboard, and it’s funny because neither man has a clue what he’s talking about. They sound like Heckyl and Jeckyl. Then when Jay is expelled from the band, we’re supposed to look back on that scene as the reason — there’s certainly no other plain reason, aside from the lingering tension found in most collaborative rock bands. Jones is so single-minded in his veneration of Tweedy, he doesn’t even feel the need to explain why Tweedy is right and Jay Bennett is wrong. And then, in the movie’s most disgusting scene, he interviews Bennett and gleefully lets him make a jumbled, self-contradicting fool of himself. Well, shit. The guy just got kicked out of the band, and he is still angry and hurt. What did you expect? Poetry? The scene got a cruel laugh from the audience I saw it with, which would be ok, but they didn’t laugh when Tweedy talked straight-faced about having his soul ripped out by Reprise, which is arguably a more embarrassing moment. There’s more to this Tweedy-Bennett story. My uncharitable guess is that telling it might have made Tweedy look like an asshole, which would be anathema to the point of this movie.
This all raises the question: who, exactly, would be bothered if we knew Jeff Tweedy was an asshole? I mean, rock stars are assholes sometimes. It’s not a mystery. Power struggles happen, and egos are bruised, and feelings are hurt, and none of this will exactly shock anyone in the audience of this movie. Or will it? Do Wilco fans really see Jeff Tweedy as some kind of kinder, gentler rock star, some sensitive, sulking pretty boy who can’t fend for himself? Because Jones certainly does. That’s insulting to Tweedy and to the audience, and it makes for a movie so one-dimensional, it’s almost unwatchable.
Even the main conflict of the movie – band vs. label – is sorely mishandled. We’re told that Reprise wanted to make changes to the album. What changes? The band isn’t interested to know that, so neither is the movie. I, for one, am. Maybe they wanted to take out some of the more self-indulgent moments of “experimental” noise. Maybe they wanted more of Tweedy’s delicate brilliance and less by-rote rocking. Maybe they wanted to make the album better. I doubt it, but we’ll never know. And since the movie doesn’t tell us what the label wanted to change, it has little right to then assert that the label doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The working assumption that bands have the right to do whatever they want to do, whenever, and for any amount, is deeply flawed. Say I work for your magazine. Do you not get to edit me, because I am an artist and you have no right to censor art? I can see the bands side in this, I really can, but no strong case is made for their side in the film. Everything is assumed, and nothing is discussed. After seeing this arrogant movie, I was almost willing to side with the label, simply because there’s no apparent and logical reason not to.
And there is also the grand contradiction – missed by many who have covered the Wilco story – of the money. Wilco slams the label for thinking only about money in their decisions about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Fricke chimes in with another hard-to-believe-considering-who-it’s-coming-from rant about how music isn’t about money, but then the triumph at the end of the film is that they sell the record back to the same parent company whose label dropped them, Time Warner, for three times the amount that it took to record it. That’s right – both Reprise, the label that dropped them, and Nonesuch, the label that understood them, are owned by the same massive multinational corporation. This makes the band happy? On the basis of what principle? I’m genuinely baffled. I can only make another uncharitable assumption – Wilco is confused about its own principles.
And finally, where is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in this movie? It’s ostensibly the subject, but we hear only very brief snippets of it. Near the beginning, there are a couple of wonderful alternate versions of songs that appear on the record (most notably, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), but much of what we hear of this record is its inception, and not the finished product. The finished product is what is great. The scenes of them making the record are unimpressive, and, sadly, as self-congratulatory as the rest of the movie, pocked with constant reminders of how collaborative and open-minded the band is (the man who says this is later kicked out of the band). Even the extended live sequences miss the mark, focusing on old material that is largely standard four-bar rock and roll, and doesn’t even suggest how daring the record in question is. The one old song that truly belongs in the movie, “Misunderstood,” is presented for about one minute of its six or seven minute length. Meanwhile, a song off of their first lackluster album “A.M.” gets the full treatment, and bores the audience to sleep with its repetitive bombast.
The one bright spot in all of this muck is Tweedy himself, and his voice, and his lyrics. One sequence documents a solo acoustic show he plays in Chicago, and it’s a stunner. For the first and last time in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, I was involved in what was going on onscreen. Here is a very talented man, I thought to myself. This man is going places.
But the band in general seems to believe its own press, which is a very precarious position to place yourself in, even in private. This movie makes their self-veneration very public, and does no one – not the band, and certainly not us – any service.
For another view, see here.