I am Trying to Break Your Heart Review

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart follows the story of Chicago, alt-rock band, Wilco as they record their fourth coming album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  As Sam Jones set out to film his first documentary he planed to capture the makings of what was anticipated to be a critical album for Wilco but as fate would have it he found himself in the middle of a classic three part tale of the clash between corporate labels and progressive art.

The film opens up with a clip of a man (who they never name) commenting on the record and gives us a bit of foreshadowing saying, “… they made their most ambitious record yet, and ambition is not synonymous with record sales… this is a masterful, dense, artistic statement. It could bomb.”   After a such a suspenseful start to the film the opening credits then roll into a goofy scene of the band drawing a face on frontman Jeff Tweedy’s stomach and using chewing gum to stick a cigarette in his belly button. Jones portrays a very relaxed vibe as the band continues work in a private loft where they are tracking for their album.  We are shown an insiders perspective of the creative process of the band.  They take their songs and first strip them down to the bare bones and then experiment with different instrumentations and unusual noises that ad a sense of confusion that eventually gives way to a powerful clarity.  Viewers are given another stroke of foreshadowing as Wilco’s guitarist, Jay Bennet, praises their record company for giving them $85,000 to make a record with complete artistic control and without any oversight of a producer or other outside influence.  While this seems like a fantasy situation to many artist the band soon starts to feel the internal pressure put on them to create a successful record.  This pressure is especially felt by main contributor Tweedy, who knows that the outcome of the record reflects mostly on himself.  Tweedy is even shown vomiting from a migraine after a tense argument in the studio with Bennet.  Tension between Tweedy and Bennet had started to reach a breaking point and not long after the completion of the album Bennet was asked to leave the band.  Bennet claimed that Tweedy felt threatened by Bennet’s influence on the music but the rest of the band members seemed to agree that the separation was for the best.  

The band had earlier been praising their label, Reprise Records, for allowing them the freedom to record what they wanted but the label was undergoing a change in management at the same time.  The day the sent in their finished record was the same day Howie Klein, the president of Reprise Record and genuine fan of Wilco, retired.  The band waited two weeks after sending them the record without hearing back from them at all.  The new management had major issues with the record and wanted them to make extensive changes.  The band refused to compromise their music so Reprise sold their album back to them and dropped them from the label.  Wilco found themselves in a very unique situation.  They had a fully recorded album ready to be released but no label behind them to back it.  Thanks to all the publicity surrounding the split, the demand for the album increased significantly.  The band had offers from multitudes of labels and they eventually settled with Nonesuch Records.  Who Ironically shared the same parent company as Reprise Records, Warner Brothers.  The band had essentially sold an album back to the same company, that didn't like it, for three times what they originally paid to make it.  The album was eventually released under Nonesuch Records in 2002 and Rolling stone called it an american classic and the first great album of the year.

The creator of the film, Sam Jones is a Los Angeles-based photographer and director who is best known for his portraits of President Barack Obama, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Bob Dylan, Kristen Stewart, Robert Downey Jr, Amy Adams, and Jack Nicholson.  His celebrity portraits have been published on the covers of Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ, Time, Entertainment Weekly and Men’s Journal.  He was already a well established photographer and director for many national commercials, and the cover of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was published in "The Greatest Album Covers of All Time”.  Its no question Jones is a very talented photographer but this was his first venture into the world of filming documentaries.  Jones chose to shoot the film in a warm and grainy black and white.  For a majority of the film Jones takes the perspective of a fly on the wall and just observes the band as they create and interact wth each other.  The rest of the story is told through interviews of the band members and people close to the band.  Jones also intertwines lots of unique performances from the band throughout the documentary that should satisfy Wilco fans and also serve to move the story along.  As far as documentaries go, Jones really does nothing out of the ordinary or innovative, he just simply records a story.  His simple and traditional film making stands as a contradiction to the experimental and ambitious music of the album.  I think he made the right chose in doing so. I believe if he had tried to do anything more dramatic it could distract from the point of the film.  Although if he had just filmed what he originally intended to shoot, thatbeing just a behind the scenes look at the creation and recording process of the album, then I think this way of filming would have been too simplistic.  Lucky for Jones he just happened to be there to witness and record a interesting story that could stand alone.  

I really enjoyed Jones’ use of black and white in this film.  I thought it not only contributed to the overall vibe of the film but it also fits as a great metaphor for the problem with corporate rock and roll.  David Fricke of Rolling Stones Magazine is featured in the film and he has a great quote. He says, “… If I was an executive at a record company, high up executive… and I listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I probably wouldn't get. Why wouldn't I get? Because it doesn't tell me exactly who it’s for, it doesn't tell me exactly what its about, and it doesn't tell me exactly what it will sell.”   Corporate executives tend to view music in black and white; will it sell or not? If they listen to something and its not immediately obvious who will consume the record then they aren't interested.  They want music to fall into cookie cutter categories so they know exactly how to market it and exactly how much money it will make them.  The problem is music and art don't fit into a quarterly business calendar.  Real art takes time to appreciate and sink in.  Music should sometimes make you uncomfortable and leave you on edge, music should make you think.  If your listening to a song for the first time and you already know what the artist is gonna say before they even say it then when the hell are you listening to it? Today’s culture is so impatient and want things now. They want to already know whats going to happen, they want know the song before they've even heard it, and thats why big record executives often miss it when they come across a real artist.  Wilco’s story is a prime example of record company cluelessness.  

Over all I believe Jones was able to keep the same purpose and point of view that he had originally set out to from the beginning; to stay true to the music.  The documentary follows a band as they create an album without any barriers, no producers trying to shape their sound, no record executives telling them what to play, just five musicians doing what they love.  At first Jones takes us into a behind the scenes look at how Wilco carefully shaped and crafted their new sound while still staying true to their roots.  Then when ego’s appear to get in the way of the music Tweedy is forced with the tough decision to fire long time friend and guitarist Jay Bennet.  Tweedy honestly just cares about the song.  He has a deep emotional connection to his music and when he felt that it was being compromised he did what he felt he had to.  Then the biggest example of honoring the music came when the record company told them they had to change the album and the band just simply couldn’t.  Tweedy and the band believed so strongly in their work that they were willing to put their record deal on the line in order to keep their musical integrity.  Luckily for Wilco, their integrity would pay off.  Much to my surprise they basically get released scot-free from their contract and were able to buy back their album from the record company.  I have heard plenty of horror stories of bands getting screwed over in their record deals so to hear that they were able to get out and maintain complete control of their record is mind blowing to me.  Wilco’s story gives me hope that staying true to the music will be worth it in the end.

Austin Finley1 Comment