Being There

Wilco's rock 'n' roll melodrama.


Directed By Sam Jones

opens Sept. 6 at Uptown and Big Picture

When he first wrote to Wilco back in July 2000, asking for permission to film the recording of the group’s new album, it’s fair to say Sam Jones had no idea what he was getting into. He merely wanted to document one of his favorite bands at a critical point in their artistic development.

Jones’ original intention for the project was a modest, if well-conceived, vision. Drawing equal inspiration from Geoffrey Stokes’ Star Making Machinery (a 1975 volume on Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen) and Jean Luc Goddard’s Rolling Stones feature, Sympathy for the Devil, he wanted to track the life of an album from start to finish, documenting every step of the process—from songwriting to recording to selecting a single.

But fate and certain circumstances—namely Wilco’s protracted split with their record label, Reprise, and the band’s firing of guitarist Jay Bennett—conspired to alter Jones’ portrait of the sessions surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot dramatically.

Now, some two years after he began work, Jones’ I Am Trying to Break Your Heart debuts, looking much different than its creator envisioned. In the end, the film is less a methodical overview than a dark, labyrinthine tale of record company economics, rock band politics, and artistic struggle: a blood, sweat, tears (and vomit)-soaked version of the making of one of the decade’s most important albums.

Sitting in a local cafe, the bearded blue-eyed Jones is only half joking when he says he was midway through shooting when he suddenly realized: “I have a real movie on my hands.” And an impressive film it is, too. Shot beautifully in 16mm black and white, Heart references the entire panoply of rock-doc classics—from ’60s seminals like Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter to punk period artifacts like D.O.A. and The Decline of Western Civilization. Part soap opera, part creative diary, Heart plays like an evolving Behind the Music episode—albeit one directed by John Cassevetes and photographed by Irving Penn.

While the overall thrust of the film spiraled out of his control, large elements of Jones’ original vision do remain in the final cut. Early in the picture, for example, you witness a progressive musical evolution, as the band takes the song “Poor Places” from a simple folk number to a squalling noise manifesto.

“Yeah, that whole ‘Poor Places’ sequence is like a condensed version of Goddard’s Sympathy for the Devil,” says Jones. “I love, not just that film, but the whole process of seeing a song grow and transform. It was important to keep that in there.”

For his part, the first-time director admits the dramatic twists and turns of the Wilco saga—while making for compelling cinema—didn’t feel like a boon at the time.

“When it happened, it seemed like more of a nightmare. First, it meant the project got a lot longer and more expensive,” says Jones, who financed most of the shooting himself. “Then, I didn’t even know if they were going to have a label. And in terms of the story, I had a main character, in Jay [Bennett], exit the film halfway through. So I had to follow up all these new threads.”

Ultimately, Jones was forced to create a concrete narrative structure—a three-act play of sorts, which grew from a simple outline into a full postproduction script. The film’s second section features an extended volley of talking heads—a sort of music-biz Greek chorus, giving some much needed exposition as to the developing storyline. Not surprisingly, it’s the only point where the film seems to bog down, as we’re pulled away from the music and into the machinations of the industry.

For the most part, though, Jones makes little effort to contextualize the band’s broader place in the rock spectrum or even offer much in the way of backstory; for example, there isn’t a single mention of Uncle Tupelo, the beloved cult combo from whose ashes Wilco emerged in 1994, or any details on the band’s previous critically acclaimed efforts leading up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot—including 1996’s sprawling double-disc Being There and ’99s pop departure Summerteeth. Ultimately, what might seem a hindrance, especially for uninitiated audiences, proves the right choice. The lack of a heavily labored history lesson—as well as Jones’ tense, terse chronological edit—provides the film with a compelling sense of urgency.

“That’s something I took from the Maysles Brothers and D.A. Pennebaker—to just jump right into it, without giving a whole lot of background,” says Jones. “In doing that, you’re really giving respect to the music. Because, ultimately, if the [band’s] music’s good enough, you’ll go find all that stuff out on your own. I didn’t want the film to be too contextual. I was much more concerned with being observational.”

To that end, he succeeds on an aesthetic level as well. Jones—a hard-news journo turned-high fashion photographer—managed to put his relatively shy subjects at ease early on, something that allowed him to get almost uncomfortably close to the action.

“The first day I started shooting, within the first hour, in fact, [lead singer Jeff] Tweedy went into the vocal booth and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just see how close I can get’— you know, we’ll establish our boundaries right here. And I managed to get right up to his face—and he didn’t say anything. So then, that just gave me total license.”

Indeed, Jones’ cameras manage to catch everything: from a beleaguered Tweedy puking in the bathroom to awkward exchanges with fans, from fractious inter-band arguments to onstage freak-outs.

In essence, that’s where the film’s real gut level appeal lies. Jones’ access and eye for the minutiae of the rock life yield a host of often painful, sometimes comic, but ultimately powerful moments—in a way that few films of the genre have succeeded before.

For Jones, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart remains less about such unguarded messiness than a journey into the creative process—a belief underscored in the film’s valediction, as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory‘s theme, “Pure Imagination,” plays over the closing credits.

“To me it’s such a perfect metaphor for what this film is about: the very act of creation,” says Jones of the song. “There’s nothing in life that can compare to the idea of making something and the initial inspiration that comes with that. By putting that at the end of the film, you could see this is more than just a movie about Wilco—in a larger sense, it’s about any artist who really tries to make something.”