Wilco is trying to break your heart

July 28, 2002


A new documentary goes behind the scenes to candidly record the tempestuous, contentious process that was required to get a modern masterpiece, "YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT" by Chicago’s own Wilco, onto the shelves of record stores.


Throughout rock history, the best documentaries have been shot by directors who didn’t know what they’d be capturing when they started filming their subjects.

When he was shooting 1967’s "Don’t Look Back," D.A. Pennebaker had no idea that he would preserve the moment when Bob Dylan effectively became the voice of a generation. Nor did the Maysles brothers foresee that the Rolling Stones’ 1968 tour would climax with the chaos at Altamont, providing an exclamation point for the’60s and the end of their 1970 film, "Gimme Shelter."

Similarly, when Los Angeles filmmaker Sam Jones set out to follow the making of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" by Chicago’s Wilco, he had no way of knowing that the band’s fight with its label, Reprise, would become symbolic of the new-millennial battle between art and commerce in the music industry; that the group would endure two wrenching personnel changes while making the record, or that the music would take on powerful new resonances after the tragedies of Sept. 11.

The unfolding drama that Jones recorded - and the artistry with which he filmed and edited it - makes his new movie "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" not only the definitive account of the crafting of Wilco’s best album, but the rare rock documentary that deserves comparisons to the handful of great films that preceded it. (The movie opens Friday at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, with national distribution to follow.)

"What’s funny is that one of the blueprints for the movie idea was this book by Geoffrey Stokes called Starmaking Machinery, Jones says. "That book shows how much hasn’t changed in the music industry, because it’s kind of the same deal as with Wilco in a lot of ways."

Originally scheduled to be released last fall, Reprise branded "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" as "uncommercial," and the critically hailed band was given its walking papers. Bandleader Jeff Tweedy issued the album on the Net for free; fans hailed it as a masterpiece, and the group eventually signed with a new label, Nonesuch. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, the band’s highest chart position to date, when it was finally released in April.

"While I didn’t want to make a whole film about the music industry, I did want to touch on the reason that I’m into music in the first place, which is that the bands I love, I’ve put time into to get something out of them," Jones says. "Take the Clash—it’s easy to love the first record, but to love ‘Sandinista,’ you’ve got to spend some time with it. Same with the Velvet Underground. And that’s how I feel with Wilco. You can’t play someone a representative Wilco song and say, ‘This is what this band is like.’ The film gains a lot from the fact that Wilco’s music is very much like a soundtrack for Jeff’s own take on the world."

Best known as a still photographer whose work has appeared in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and Esquire, Jones began his career as a director by filming TV commercials.

He had never met Tweedy when he wrote to the band’s manager suggesting the idea of a documentary. When he flew to Chicago to make the pitch in person, and he and Tweedy wound up bonding over a dinner that lasted until the restaurant kicked them out.

A devoted music fan and a former indie musician, Jones funded much of the film himself—he was more than $150,000 in debt before he attracted outside producers (including native Chicagoan Albert Berger) and struck a deal for a DVD release - and he set his sights high, aspiring to make a movie as strong as "Don’t Look Back."

"Pennebaker was definitely an influence," he says. "‘Don’t Look Back’ is one of my favorite rock films of all time, because it never feels like it’s trying to teach you anything. It never feels obligated to tell you the history of why Bob Dylan is important, you just catch up with him at the airport and try to stay with his crowd."

"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" has a similar frenetic, you-are-there feel, and the musicians are shown warts and all. In an age where every episode of VH1’s "Behind the Music" shares the same carefully sanitized, thoroughly scripted three-act story arc (band rises to the top, band suffers a tragedy, band comes back from the brink), Jones lucked into a real and moving tale, he was allowed all-access permission to film it.

"At the beginning, that was one of the deals," he says. "When we talked, I said, ‘Look, I really want to make sure you guys are in for the long haul on this. I’m not making this with any money from the record company, so I want to be able to make it the way I want to.’ To their credit, from the start, they didn’t want to see the movie until it was completely done.

"Jeff walks his talk. He would feel like he was impinging on another artist by [trying to have control over the film], and I think that he has such an encyclopedic knowledge of music history and music films that he would never want to go see a movie where the artist had control. He was really interested in the whole idea as theory or experimentation, and he thought that the idea of having cameras around might even create a different experience in recording that might be good. I think that gives viewers the feeling of being a fly on the wall."

Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is that the sequences of the band recording in its loft on the Northwest Side and performing onstage (including its memorable show in Grant Park on July 4, 2001) are shot with such skill and musical insight that they add an extra layer of appreciation to songs such as "Ashes of American Flags" and "I’m the Man Who Loves You." Just as fans walk away from the Pink Floyd concert film "Live at Pompeii" newly impressed by that band’s abilities, you can’t help but watch "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" and think, "So that’s how they made those weird noises!"

The movie’s other strong suit is that the conflicts the musicians faced play out in a series of very real and revealing scenes, so that Jones does not have to rely on talking-head interviews to tell the story. We see the pain in Tweedy’s face as he attempts to schmooze with record-company executives backstage; we feel his embarrassment when he stops at a roadside restaurant for lunch with his family and realizes that he and his wife have a mere $6 between them, and we cringe when a contentious argument with bandmate Jay Bennett makes him so upset that he rushes off to the bathroom to vomit.

Tweedy’s split with Bennett has been the subject of numerous articles and much debate among fans. But just as "Let It Be" gave fans invaluable insight into the Beatles’ inevitable split, it’s clear after watching "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" why Tweedy and Bennett could no longer work together.

"Jeff has migraines, and the puking has as much to do with that as anything else, but I think that scene is a metaphor for how personally Jeff takes things," Jones says. "They’re all polite, Midwestern, bend-over-backwards-for-you type guys; I think a lot of that stuff was under the surface for them. That’s why I felt at first, ‘Well, is it cheating to show this? Because usually that stuff isn’t said.’ And then I thought, ‘No, that’s one of the few times they vocalized anything that wasn’t passive-aggressive.’ I’m just speculating, but I’m sure there were a lot of unspoken points that led up to Jay’s leaving, and that was one of the things that was actually aired out, so I felt that it was honest to put it in the film."

Famously reticent, it was not easy for Tweedy to watch himself on the screen for 92 minutes. "The first time he saw the movie, it was really uncomfortable for him," Jones says. "All he could see was himself in every frame. I showed it to him, and the biggest mistake I made was being there with him at a hotel room at like three in the morning - the two of us sitting in a dark room watching this thing. But the funny thing is the next day we showed it on the tour bus to the rest of the band, and at that point Jeff would say, ‘Look at this scene coming up, you guys, check this out!’ And he was able to see it the second time and really like it.

"The biggest compliment he gave me is he said, ‘You filmed what you saw.’ I hate reading a story by a journalist who obviously went in there with his own agenda and just went to get quotes to fill the story. We went down a lot of roads that we didn’t end up using, but what we used, I think we got right. I’m sure you’ve seen your share of films that you knew more about the subject than the filmmaker, and it’s the worst feeling. Documentary or not, you’ve got to pick up on the little nuances that are really telling about the experience, and not just the cliched things that signify rock."