By Lindsay Utz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday April 24, 2003
I was fascinated by D. D. Pennebaker's 1965 documentary portrait of Bob Dylan in "Don't Look Back." I realized then, even though I must have known, how really mad and complicated that young guitar-strumming man of my parent's generation was. There were, I realized, things about Dylan that his songs would never reveal.
I also remember seeing "Woodstock" the documentary for the first time and the engulfing awe I felt from watching Joe Cocker, sweaty and wild, belt out the line · "What would you do if I sang out of tune · " For the first time I was able to put a face to that raspy voice that still encapsulates precisely what the country's youth was feeling during that time over 30 years ago.
American rock documentaries of the past have become lasting portraits of bands defined by and reacting to the society in which they live, making this genre much more than that of extended music videos, but historical artifacts capturing the music, dreams, hopes and fears of one particular generation.
In the tradition of "Don't Look Back" and "Woodstock" another film has just been released and should be swiftly added to the list of extraordinary films about rock 'n' roll. "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart" is a film about the band Wilco made by a man named Sam Jones.
The title of the film is taken from the first song on Wilco's most recent album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album with quite a story behind it, as the film will reveal. In the director's notes included within the DVD package Jones describes this particular song as "sounding like a broken-down truck of a beautiful confession."
He goes on to explain that this song title describes what Wilco's intent with their listeners is and admits that it hopefully also describes his effect on the eventual audience of this film. "Images, sounds, and emotions tied together with the express purpose of breaking a heart. Or breaking through to a heart," Jones writes.
Telling a story about the making of what seems to be Wilco's most complicated and artistic album to date. This film documents every step of the recording process and the troubles that arise therein, ranging from disputes within the band to issues with the band's label. Its pacing and form are that of a traditional documentary, including live performances, interviews with the band members and, among others, Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke whose insight into the music industry becomes a vital part in understanding the precarious position of being, in spirit, an independent band crushed beneath a major label.
Wilco sent Warner Brothers their finished record and days later, to everyone's astonishment, they were
suddenly dropped from the label. They had apparently refused to make changes to their album, a record the company was convinced wouldn't sell. Unbeknownst to Warner Brothers, they had just did the band and Sam Jones a big favor. Not only did the band now have a completed album free to shop around with no strings attached, but also this now provided Jones with the drama and conflict of a good story.
Ironically, Nonesuch Records, the avant-garde branch of Warner Brothers, ends up purchasing the album (the same album they funded) and signing the band. Not only does the record sell, but is named one of the best records of 2001 by Rolling Stone.
This is not simply the story of a time in some band's life, but our time, this life. Years from now this film will say a lot about our generation and our own feelings of interwoven joy and despair. Heartbreaking is the best description of this little DVD package. The idea that these gorgeous 16mm black and white film images and lone urban rock and roll tunes will be here long after we're all gone is an amazing thing.
Because of the DVD format the second disc allows Jones to release some great footage that didn't make it into the documentary and that, in a way, comprise a more intimate documentary because they are not so focused on telling a story, but simply watching artists at work ... and play. The scene of singer/guitarist Jeff Tweedy's children running around an empty theater during dad's sound check comes to mind.
On this disc there is a solo performance of the song "Sunken Treasure" by Tweedy. He stands on the stage, scruffy and gentle, the audience at a silent standstill, and leans over to the microphone, nearly crying the lyrics · "I am so out of tune · with you."
It's a moment very much like Cocker's Woodstock performance, a little slice of time in which the world stops moving and the only heartbeat is that of the musician, at the edge of the earth, singing exactly what needs to be sung · at that moment.