I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
2002, NR, 93 min. Directed by Sam Jones. Starring Wilco.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 4, 2002
The title is taken from a song on Wilco's latest album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but it might as well be a boldfaced memo from record company Reprise to the critically feted but commercially underperforming alt.country rockers. By now, the story is legendary, a David and Goliath parable for the age of global corporations. Upon delivery of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot -- almost universally acknowledged as one of the best albums of the year and the band's most electrifying yet -- Reprise sat on the album for two weeks, then finally responded by demanding dramatic changes. Wilco refused, and the label eventually let the band go. (The final, delicious irony, of course, is that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was then picked up by Nonesuch -- owned by parent company AOL-Time Warner, which also owns Reprise -- meaning the company paid twice for the same product.) Jones' film begins some time before all the brouhaha with the recording of the album in a loft in Wilco's native Chicago (lensed in black & white to an inky grandeur). A witness to this ground-zero creative collaboration at its most elemental and experimental, first-timer Jones wisely avoids the fast zooms and herky-jerky jump cuts of music videos for a steadier, more elegant approach; the film is at its finest during these recording sessions and during the doc's many live performances. In fact, these moments far outperform the record company controversy -- partly because there's little suspense to that highly publicized fiasco, but also because the film refuses to dig very deeply into it. The particulars of the dispute are vague: Reprise is represented by a clueless top exec, while the Wilco camp consists mostly of frontman Jeff Tweedy sprawled on a hotel bed rightfully looking like he just got kicked in the gut. The documentary is less delicate with the split between Tweedy and bandmate Jay Bennett (Tweedy fired Bennett during the mixing of the album). Even Jones seems embarrassed by the comically stupid bickering between the two -- after sticking with a squabble for what seems like ages, the director finally turns the sound up on the background music and inches his camera away from the pair, like a mortified houseguest looking for the nearest exit. Allegiance here is clearly with Tweedy -- this is his show, just as Wilco is his band -- and Jones' camera clings to his side (so close as to follow him into a cramped toilet, into which Tweedy and fraying nerves upchuck their lunch). Although the dramatics of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart suffer from the hands-off approach to the split from Reprise (and from several grating continuity errors), there's still much to cheer here, from its treasure trove of early and alternate versions of songs to the triumphant finale, at which point David sticks it to the man and earns greater exposure and record sales than ever before.