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'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart'

Artistic triumph of troubled Wilco an electric documentary

Friday, September 27, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Like "Let It Be," this documentary asks its audience to feel the pain and tension of a brilliant band disintegrating while making a difficult album and share in the rush of the band members putting that tension aside -- or possibly to work -- in classic live performance clips.

'I Am Trying
To Break Your Heart'

RATING: Not rated



WEB SITE: www.wilcofilm.com


Local movie showtimes


With Wilco, you get the additional tension of the band's own label recoiling in horror when Wilco emerges from the struggle with a masterpiece of complicated beauty, as opposed to the Beatles, whose label was perfectly willing to let them put out "Revolution 9."

As Greg Kot, a Chicago critic and longtime supporter, notes in the opening moments of the film, "In some ways, they've made their most ambitious album yet. And ambition is not synonymous with record sales. This is a masterful, dense, artistic statement. It could bomb."

It doesn't, though. The label drops them, but a bidding war ensues, and when the album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," hits the streets on Nonesuch, it enters the Billboard album chart at No. 13, while the lead review in Rolling Stone declares it a modern American classic.

So it's got a happy ending, unlike "Let It Be." That's one of several qualities that makes this documentary easier to watch than "Let It Be," while no less powerful.

They even hold the band together, firing the source of all the tension, multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who emerges both as sympathetic figure and major annoyance. Early in the film, he's close enough to group leader Jeff Tweedy to draw a face on Tweedy's gut. And if you know he's been fired before you see the film, it's really sad to see him say he's "really happy because Jeff and I have done of lot of this stuff together." But that feeling of togetherness eventually gives way to paranoia and freakish behavior as Bennett begins to imagine a power struggle in a group where the question of leadership has a perfectly obvious answer.

Shot in black and white, the film is edited in such a way that it's able to capture everything that was grueling about the tumultuous sessions without being grueling itself, showing just enough to let you know what everyone was feeling, then cutting away. There's humor, too, including a fake conversation at a gig in which Tweedy pretends to care about his stock portfolio.

It's also pretty funny, if a little sad, when Bennett talks enthusiastically about how supportive the folks at the label have been, allowing the band to hole up and experiment in their own loft. Concluding his moment of tragicomic foreshadowing, Bennett says, "That's trust, right? They trust us."

But first-time director Sam Jones is along for the ride with a band he loves, and as a fan, he knows enough to keep the focus on the music.

And the music is phenomenal, from clips of Tweedy alone on acoustic guitar at a show in Chicago to the band electrifying classic after classic, both in concert and rehearsal. But the real treat is hearing the new songs in development, without all the layers of artful noise that horrified the label. Hearing a stripped-down, acoustic, work-in-progress recording of "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" that somehow manages to be more poignant, more emotional, more Beatlesque than the version with all the bells and whistles on the finished album, all I could think was, "I hope there's a soundtrack."

And there isn't. Not yet anyway. But you can hear it come together in the movie while you're sharing in the pain and triumph of the most inspired band in American rock 'n' roll, with the added incentive of seeing Tweedy driving through Chicago with a SpongeBob SquarePants figure hanging from his rearview mirror.

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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