Pity Jay Bennett. In I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Sam Jones’ new “documentary” about the making of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the former Wilco guitarist comes across as self-absorbed and out of touch with the rest of the world. Instead of displaying the typical motivation for antisocial musician behavior—sex, drugs, money—Bennett just seems to be a guy who’s not very cool. A geek. Someone mocked by his own bandmates, who has the unfortunately poor judgement to quote himself in an on-camera interview, a musician who spends more time obsessing about esoteric production issues than strumming chords. This is a somewhat expected depiction—Bennett is the guy who got kicked out of the band in the middle of the making of this film. There’s certainly no reason to expect Jones to be fair to him, not when Jones is the guy whose still photography appears in the liner notes to the album. Especially not when Jones is looking to get the band’s cooperation in the release of a double disc DVD of his movie. No, what is surprising is that the rest of Wilco doesn’t come off looking much better than Bennett, especially frontman Jeff Tweedy. “Pot Kettle Black” indeed.
Let the record show that I am a Wilco fan. A big one. They are undoubtedly my favorite band. Thus, I did genuinely enjoy I Am Trying… But know that the film is not what it could have been and at times even embarrassing. Know this—and go see it anyway.
The main problem with I Am Trying…, with most band films for that matter, is one of focus. It’s clear Jones went into this production with open eyes and cameras rolling. And he shot some amazing footage while witnessing the creation of an epic album, one that turned into a big story when it got rejected by Reprise Records and digitally bootlegged around the world, then released a year later on another label. But it’s also plain to see Jones never figured out who his audience is. The film tells a chronological tale of the recording of YHF with a juicy subplot in the firing of Bennett—as good a structure as any on which to hang a documentary, but this isn’t a documentary. It’s more of a band expose—think of a black-and-white “Behind the Music”—yet one surprisingly devoid of exposition. There is little-to-no use of narration, title cards, or historical footage. This is a film that presumes you already know quite a bit about Wilco.
I Am Trying… might require fan club membership, but telling a story that most of us music geeks and Wilco-obsessives already know in a chronological fashion is a peculiar decision. Sure, we get a few chortles out of the scenes where the band’s collective expectations of Reprise run high, long before they get shit-canned, but there is no drama in patiently waiting for shoes numbers one and two to drop. A lot of film time is wasted following a plot that need not be followed, not if this was truly a film for the fan. The fallout is considerable: Important ground that should be covered just isn’t. Why was former drummer Ken Coomer fired just before Jones began filming? How much did the album change after Reprise gave it back? Did the events of Sept. 11 (which happened while Wilco was in limbo between labels) affect the band’s decision about what to do with the album? How does Wilco feel about its fans’ widespread piracy of the album while it was still unreleased? Did streaming the album over the Internet six months before its eventual release have an effect on efforts to shop it around to other labels? These are just a handful of questions that weren’t adequately addressed.
While this list could be writ longer without much trouble, Jones is probably not as negligent as this implies. I’m inclined to believe that his cameras probably captured anything and everything we might have wanted to see—we know for a fact he’s got a lot more musical footage readied for the DVD—but editing decisions left a lot of good stuff on the cutting room floor. Even using the footage already present in the film and re-editing it to eliminate the laborious narrative structure, it would be possible to save a huge chunk of time. Time that could have been devoted to something more interesting, like the hugely unspoken piracy issue. (No indie movie has a budget to go much longer than 90 minutes; minutes are money.)
Perhaps when the DVD is released, I can do my own “fan-tom edit,”creating a version of the film aimed squarely at Wilco’s devoted fan base. Jones clearly didn’t take this route. He hedged his bets, following a documentary path that’s so familiar as to make its subject appear to be accessible to the average Angelika moviegoer, the person who might have read about the hubub with Reprise in the Times. Yet I’d be shocked to find this ordinary viewer getting much of anything from I Am Trying…, there’s just not enough backstory to make things make sense. The non-fan needs to be told the story of the band before YHF, the evolution from the Uncle Tupelo days. Without this knowledge, without understanding how both Being There and Summerteeth had aspired to the sort of greatness that YHF actually achieves, the footage of the recording sessions cannot possibly carry the requisite gravity. I, we—the fans—feel the tension and import of each frame of celluloid, but it’s just not possible for the non-fan to get it.
Jones’ indecision, his creation of a film that falls so squarely between catering to the unknowing and prostrating itself before the hardcores fails both constituencies. Worse, I worry about what it might do to those who come to the film primed to enter our club of enlightenment in thinking Wilco is the best thing since… well, Uncle Tupelo.
The best parts of I Am Trying… are the musical interludes and concert sequences, especially the scenes from Tweedy’s solo shows, all filmed as you’d expect them to be, with great sound and good camera work. These scenes are entirely satisfying, but in between, the behind-the-scenes glimpses reveal Wilco is not a band of legend in the traditional fashion of rock and roll. We already know this, that these guys are record collectors and musical equipment junkies rather than rock stars. But seeing it on screen can be painful, and I’m not even talking about the domestic squabble between the members of the band, the kind of reality that’s never fun to watch outside of an episode of Cops. (Not to mention the scene where we get to see Tweedy vomit.) More harmful to the psyche is the consideration that significant numbers of movie-goers will have no context in which to place Tweedy and Bennett’s exceptional display of what can only be a tendency towards obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that’s the most painful point of I Am Trying… that breaks my heart: The thought that people will see this film and think my favorite band is a bunch of nerds.
But they are. This is a band that eats its critical acclaim for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a band that pays the bills by touring for the same 100,000 fans, 5,000 at a time. We’re nerds too, this is a point to be celebrated. But for some reason, there’s this persistent thought in our community that one day, the rest of the world will discover the greatness that “is/was” Wilco, thus vindicating our own collective and personal weirdness. We can all see the headlines: “Geeks rejoice! Tweedy outsells Britney.” While I’m sure of the band’s greatness, just as I’m sure Jay Bennett is really the cool guy he was when we interviewed him, just as I’m sure that Jeff Tweedy isn’t a prick for booting his drummer and guitarist within the space of six months to more tightly draw the “circle” back around him, Jones’ film pretty much makes me give up on the dream of commercial success for this most cherished of bands.
And I Am Trying… gives me further reason to worry. YHF is a great album. I’ve been living with it and listening regularly for over a year. But it’s at the extreme edge of what I’m willing to accept, from Wilco or from any band. In the movie Jay Bennett explains that every song starts as a folk song, a philosophy that has grounded Wilco since the days of Uncle Tupelo. Here’s hoping the band doesn’t lose sight of this idea, at least not in the way that Bennett did in making his overproduced The Palace at 4 AM. I want to love Wilco for the songs and the rock and roll, just like I always have. I have no desire for the band to return to its alt.country roots (whatever that means), but the noise and experimentation that make YHF what it is are dangerous drugs. Without restraint, this path can lead to the kind of unlistenable crap that ruins a band with artistic vision in excess of talent. (Radiohead comes to mind, though I’m liable to divert the point of this article just by mentioning them. Let’s save that discussion for another time.) Having now seen Tweedy’s antics projected on a 30-foot screen and having seen his post-Bennett live show, well… I repeat, mantra-like, that I am sure of the band’s greatness.
Wilco is truly at a crossroads, having finally, through great effort and considerable casualty, succeeded in releasing its most ambitious project, its best album. Where do you go from such a summit? Jones’ film avoids asking the question, yet clearly colors the scenario. To his credit, he didn’t make the sort of record company propaganda flick that would lead us to believe Wilco’s next feat will be to cure world hunger. So as our appetite for greatness from Tweedy and Co. has never been greater, it has never been more potentially disappointing. I Am Trying… feeds us as it starves us, serving most importantly as yet another chapter in the biography of a most important band.