Director at the 'Heart' of powerful Wilco film

August 2, 2002


There's a reason that many of the best movies about rock 'n' roll have been documentaries: At its best, the music is about living in the moment. To capture these spontaneous explosions of emotion on film, it helps to have been the ubiquitous fly on the wall.

Witness the brilliance of "Don't Look Back" (D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 film about Bob Dylan), "Gimme Shelter" (the Maysles brothers' 1970 chronicle of the Rolling Stones) and "D.O.A." (Lech Kowalski's 1980 account of the Sex Pistols' ill-fated American tour).

To this list we can now add Sam Jones' "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," a riveting account of the crafting of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," the recent masterpiece by Chicago's alt-country-gone-art-rock band, Wilco.


Cowboy Pictures presents a documentary directed by Sam Jones. Running time: 92 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening today at the Music Box.

* * * * [4 stars]

Like the directors cited above, Jones had no idea what he was getting into when he began following Wilco as it started recording the album in its loft on the Northwest Side of Chicago. And like those filmmakers, he walked away with a fascinating story that perfectly sums up a moment in time.

Wilco's album was initially rejected by its label, the formerly artist-friendly Reprise Records, yet another victim of a time in the music industry when commerce has come to matter much more than art. Jones follows that story with an honest, objective eye, as well as tracking the equally fascinating tales of the personal struggles many musicians face (there's a wonderfully human scene of bandleader Jeff Tweedy realizing he doesn't have enough cash in his pocket to buy his family's lunch) and the tensions they can cause in a band. (Jones began filming the day the band fired original drummer Ken Coomer, and he captured multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett's painful split from the group.)

There is also the fact that, with songs such as "Ashes of American Flags" and "War on War," the album came to be eerily resonant of the tragedies of Sept. 11 (though it was completed long before those events). It is yet another testament to Jones' understated skill that he does not play this connection lightly, relying only on one haunting, evocative shot of a plane flying into a building.

Given the pro-artist, anti-corporate message that slowly emerges in the film, it's a bit ironic that Jones' pedigree is as a glossy magazine photographer (his work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Esquire) and a director of TV commercials. But he is also an amateur musician, and in addition to the technical skills honed in his day job--the film is beautifully shot in black and white--he clearly brought his love for and intuitive understanding of the music-making process to his debut film.

If you already know "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," the movie will give you an even greater appreciation of the album as you watch the songs evolve not just from a front-row seat, but from a position within the band itself, marveling at the ingenuity of the group in crafting these unique and otherworldly soundscapes. (New drummer Glenn Kotche is particularly adept at providing the perfect accompaniment.)

If you have yet to hear the album, or doubt its many critical plaudits, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" may convince you. (The genius of early '60s Dylan never fully struck me, for example, until Pennebaker took me onstage and behind the scenes of that famous 1966 European tour.) And if you don't care about music at all, the movie may hook you in with the human story.

As Jones has said, the members of Wilco (Tweedy, Kotche, John Stirratt, and Leroy Bach) are a fairly reticent and inward-looking bunch, but that makes the eruptions of emotion--whether it's a disturbing fight between Tweedy and Bennett that climaxes with Tweedy losing his lunch in a studio bathroom, or the musicians goofing off by drawing silly faces on their bellies--all the more effective.

The band members were courageous in allowing Jones the access to see them warts and all, and to allow him full control over the editing process, resisting the urge to cut any of the more embarrassing moments. As a result, they were rewarded not only with a true and subtly nuanced portrait, but a film that rises far above the forms that dominate these days (the buy-our-record video and the cliche-ridden "Behind the Music" docudrama) to stand as a work every bit as powerful as the music at its core.