By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
David vs. Goliath. That’s the short version of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” a new documentary film detailing the making of Wilco’s masterwork album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch), and the fallout that followed.
By now, the story is familiar. In the process of making the record, the Chicago-based band suffered significant personnel changes that ultimately coincided with the record’s dismissal from Reprise, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Right away, the adventuresome album became a music industry metaphor. It signified the industry was no long interested in releasing music that didn’t have the potential for platinum sales, no matter what its artistic worth.
Plus, it was a window into the bureaucratic hypocrisy that plagues the industry, especially in the wake of the hyper mergers of the late ’90s. By the time Wilco turned in the record to Reprise, it faced new label reps who replaced the ones that believed in the band in the first place. And after the band was dropped, it was signed to Nonesuch, just another Warner Bros. subsidiary. The band, the film asserts, got paid for the same record twice.
Filmmaker Sam Jones had the fortitude of being there from the beginning. He is also a photographer and every frame looks beautiful. Composing the band’s faces, he spends time there, capturing each one’s personality without them having to say one word.
For fans the film offers a rare glimpse of what went into making the music, including footage of the band pondering every detail and frequent friction between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett, the band’s principal songwriters.
In the press, there’s been a lot of comparison of this film to “Don’t Look Back,” D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Bob Dylan’s historic 1965 tour. But the principle that made that film work — objectivity— isn’t a factor here.
While Pennebaker’s camera was a silent witness in “Don’t Look Back,” Jones fills a majority of his film with tedious on-screen interviews with peripheral players like band manager Tony Margherita, whose screen time equals – or in many cases surpasses – the musicians themselves. In “Don’t Look Back,” there were glimpses of Dylan manager Albert Grossman, but he was more seen, not heard. The difference being, Pennebaker wanted to show us how the music came form those specific personalities he filmed and he didn’t need the business suits or outside experts tell us.
In what is essentially an extended version of a “60 Minutes” segment, there’s endless hyperbole about the big bad record industry, even though this is a story Wilco fans — who will be most disappointed by this film — had shoved down their throat for more than a year now.
Years from now, no one will remember or care about the label slip-up that prevented “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” from reaching the masses sooner. But they will care about the music and where it came from and how it was made. Too bad Jones missed that chance, choosing to veer from that process in favor of boilerplate propaganda.