There's no denying that U2 is awesome, or that Phil Joanou is a snappy director, but the charming awkwardness of Sam Jones' 16mm black-and-white rockumentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart makes one wanna murmur, "Rattle on? Humbug!" at the Irish Grammy-grabbers' old-school cinematic self-celebration. As we turn our attention to the alt-something band Wilco, we experience a different strain of pop combo -- not boldly theatrical Dublin lads playing concrete cowboy but homegrown fellers searchin' fer somethin' like soul. Pro photographer and commercial director Jones' account of the band's foibles in creating and releasing their lauded 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot presents an astute appraisal of Middle American musical torpor and the desperate struggle to escape it.
Of course, this is the sort of movie that'll come as a minor miracle to the Wilco faithful but will seem rather rote to those who've seen a rock band before. Fortunately, in the grossly oversaturated roots-rock category -- Hootie Traveler Matthewhawks are cordially invited to go jangle in hell -- St. Louis-born Wilco sort of, kind of fills the enormous void of folk-smart integrity left by R.E.M. when the arty Athens band gained $80 million and immediately lost their je ne sais quoi. To their credit, in addition to the band's own works (A.M., Being There, Summerteeth), Wilco has had the very good sense to record two smashing albums of leftover Woody Guthrie lyrics with socialist songsmith Billy Bragg (whose knowing wink-wink holds more charisma than all these guys put together). More important, Wilco mean what they play, and even if their sound doesn't appeal, only a total meanie would knock them for trying.
Only note: What we've got here is a little propaganda film. A mild one, certainly, but the cliché of DIY hopefuls (band) versus the Big Machine (music industry) foments the same tedious struggle of art versus commerce -- of beat-up guitars versus "gold-plated cell phones" -- that spawned grunge ten years ago, punk fifteen before that and so on. The "conflict" is its own marketing campaign. You can comprehend this theme much more quickly by listening to Nirvana's "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" or the Sex Pistols' "EMI," but you'd also be missing an intimate look at Wilco at work, if that happens to be your bag.
Although they're almost Spinal Tappian in their obtuse earnestness -- nervous bandleader Jeff Tweedy describes Wilco's latest effort as having "a lot of drums and holes in the songs in it ... open spaces in what's supposed to be the music part" -- these dedicated young men rock out with aplomb in their recording sessions and performances. Standouts include "Kamera" and "Not for the Season" played live, plus, in the band's Chicago loft, a blistering run through "I'm Always in Love." The music becomes most moving when Tweedy screeches to an adoring crowd, "I am so out of tune ... with you!" Chops and emotional investment are revealed in equal measure.
Broken into three crude acts, this is the story of Wilco's getting excited about experimenting in the studio, then finding out that their label, Reprise, doesn't like their latest offering, then experiencing personal conflicts (mainly between tenderfoot Tweedy and his openly obnoxious bandmate Jay Bennett) while attempting to land Yankee Hotel Foxtrot at a new label. Unfortunately, this drama provokes all sorts of silliness. For instance, from Beatles to Beefheart, Hitchcock to the Hoodoo Gurus, Camper to Femmes to Soul Coughing, studio experimentation is not exactly the revolutionary concept suggested here. Folk with noise? This is new? It's also ridiculous -- but, fortunately, acknowledged -- that the band's tyrannical old label (Reprise) and its heavenly new one (Nonesuch) are both just tentacles of the all-consuming octopus that is AOL Time Warner. The band members (also including John Stirratt, Leroy Bach and Glenn Kotche) and their manager, Tony Margherita, eventually acknowledge that their "perils" have only led them to greater fortunes.
Along the way, we get to hear accolades from Chicago journalist Greg Kot ("This is an interactive band," he helpfully explains) and Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke (who looks disturbingly like Anthony Robbins in a David Cassidy wig but makes some strong points regarding music versus business). Tweedy then pukes for us and groupies beg to have their asses signed, and there are assorted monkeyshines. Wilco play around, from San Francisco to the Taste of Chicago (a fun but hardly tastemaking annual food fest), but mainly we're just locked in with the fellas as they debate sonic abstractions in pseudo-studio patois. Perhaps it's no mistake that Jones frames some of their "loitering rock band" shots exactly like the cover of U2's enormous All That You Can't Leave Behind, because if there's one mantra repeated here, it's the concept of taking Wilco "to another level." Let's hope they make it, so the uninitiated can get behind the music.