July 28, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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
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
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
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
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
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."