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Wilco Documentary …a Heartbreaker

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Well, it doesn’t end with a rooftop concert played for a puzzled and scant audience of bystanders. But for comparisons to other rock movies, this one about the making of the April, 2002 release “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” has more in common with the sad documentary of the Beatles dissolution “Let it Be” than “A Hard Day’s Night.”

The mix down process of the album is where artistic differences reach a head with a spat over “Heavy metal drummer.” Jay Bennett plays Paul to Jeff Tweedy’s John; (or in a cartoon world, Jay plays Sylvester to Jeff’s Tweety –sorry, I couldn’t resist), and the entire scene ending with Jay’s firing, brings to light the same kind of inevitable band politics that brought about the end of The Beatles.

A Spinal Tap moment follows in an interview with Jay, who, in the aftermath of his leave-taking, explains (rationalizes?) that his contribution to Wilco’s music was a threat. Conversation about personnel problems in the band had come up many times, says Jay, and “To quote myself, my days in Wilco were numbered.”

In all fairness, Jay’s contributions during the honeymoon period of the recording were no mean feat. In the band’s creative womb of a Chicago loft, Jay and the rest are pratically burning with a fever of creative ideas for music concrete as they fashioned instruments out of rubber tubing and wurlitzers or something.

It’s at this point in the film where it seems that “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”could be, if I dare, Wilco’s “Sergeant Pepper’s…” Tweedy’s reserve in discussing the album is a tip-off. Judging from his shy response to probes about whether the album will sound more like “Summerteeth” or “AM,” you’d think he had been asked to describe in public, details of a love affair. After the album’s chilly reception by Warner, the band’s label, Tweedy’s reaction to this rejection is painful to watch.

Equally painful is the footage of Tweedy puking into the studio’s toilet, and we learn he has always suffered from migraines. Suddenly Tweedy has more gravitas as an artist than at the film’s opening when he sticks bubble gum in his bellybutton. No doubt about it, stakes get higher in this movie, which among other things, seems to carry a message about the costs of creative integrity.

A strong video segment accompanies the song “Poor places” with crafty time lapse video of the Chicago skyline. And there’s fun footage from sold out shows at venues like San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall where the band eschews the seriousness of the studio to put on the mantle of good time rock n roll.

about the DVD/VHS release…The DVD and VHS of this film was planned for Christmas 2002. If is not out by then, it will be out shortly thereafter on Plexifilm. Plexifilm is the new independent DVD label and independent film studio co-founded by Gary Hustwit (formerly VP of Salon.com) and Sean Anderson (formerly Director of DVD Development of The Criterion Collection)

The DVD will include a book with the entire story of the making of the film, including many, many photographs and other interesting items. There will be liner notes, written by a very famous music journalist (which we will keep secret for now), a commentary track that features Sam Jones and all four members of Wilco talking about what went on behind the scenes, and best of all, tons of extra footage that has never been seen. The extras include over 20 songs performed in their entirety, plus many interesting moments backstage, on stage, and in the recording studio.

Purists will say there is no substitute for the celluloid screen, however, and the wilco film website urges us to remember this. “There is nothing that compares to seeing projected black and white film, and a loud soundtrack in ‘surround,'” the site says, “so if you have the chance, go see the film in the theater!”

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