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First time director Sam Jones documents the making of Wilco's fourth studio Album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Named after the Wilco song that is featured on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album that strays from the Alt-country that made them famous. Jones' desire was to document the creative work of YHF's production, he seems to have found a bit more, including band members departing and a conflict with Reprise record company. This is a true documentry of art versus money-driven media conglomerates. Written by
J. Robert Putzer <email@example.com>
According to Sam Jones, the members of Wilco never complained or asked for space during filming. At one point, Jones said, "I had the camera next to (John Stirratt), pointing straight at him, and he flubbed his bass line. The song stopped, and (Jay Bennett) yelled out, 'That one was going so great!' I felt terrible, but John, ever the gentleman, claimed that I didn't have anything to do with him messing up. (Yeah right, you try doing your job all day with a virtual stranger pointing a giant camera at you.)" See more »
This documentary comes as a nice surprise to anyone who has been following the Uncle Tupelo/Sun Volt/Wilco chapter of rock n' roll history being quietly written in the Midwest for the past 15 years. For anyone who is a fan, the film is a must-see. For general fans of rock n' roll it offers a handy introduction to one of the few interesting rock bands in this parched musical era. Judged solely as a documentary film it is a half-hearted effort that scores some points but ultimately doesn't carry its own weight.
First the good: the cinematography, a grainy black and white that is probably 16mm film, is often breathtaking...even magical. In some scenes we can't really tell if that is Chicago snow falling, or simply the film stock being blown out, but the dreamy, low-tech look perfectly complements the musical style and tradition of Jeff Tweedy's aching folk-pop music. The sound recording is also excellent; while not offering the huge sonic experience of, say, the re-released Dolby 5.1 version of the Last Waltz, the sound crew of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart did a wonderful job of capturing the raw, pulsing sounds of a band at work, both in the recording studio and on the stages of nightclubs. Finally the filmmakers do a real service to music fans by including generous amounts of footage of the band at work in the studio writing, rehearsing, recording and mixing songs. It's exciting to see an album taking shape before your eyes in this manner.
Despite these strengths the documentary as storytelling gets lost when it drifts away from the recording studio and into the politics of the music business. One thing you can usually count on with documentary filmmaking is that the good guys and the bad guys are allowed to fully reveal themselves in all their naked glory or shameless depravity before our very eyes, but this movie seems to have its moral compass all screwed up. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say: it doesn't have a moral compass but rather buys too easily into the idea that everyone associated with Wilco is a "good guy", and everyone else is villainous.
In fact the band's manager, Tony Margherita, who is marginally awarded the role of narrator of the story, comes off as the kind of shameless huckster who makes the music business such an embarrassing behind-the-scenes spectacle. Early in the film he crows the music biz mantra of "taking Wilco to the next level" with such a moronic, repetitive gusto that one wants to stuff a tambourine in his mouth. When Reprise Records rejects the new Wilco album (ironically because they *don't* think it will take the band to the next level) he changes gears and starts talking about artistic integrity. But when Reprise drops the band from its roster he leads the band into a lucrative contract with... Reprise's sister label, Nonesuch, presumably because they offered the most money.
This should be funny, revelatory stuff, but the filmmakers seem so enamored with the band that they are unable to identify the crassness of this whole story arc, and in fact end the film with the schmoozy manager chortling about how he got Warner Brothers (parent company of Reprise and Nonesuch) to buy the same album twice. Ironic, yes, but the decision to stay in the Warner Bros. family while adopting a tone of moral superiority to their enterprise is nothing but hypocrisy.
Worse, when Tweedy kicks Jay Bennett out of the band midway through filming, the movie essentially takes a brief interlude to mock the departed songwriter. While Mr. Bennett indeed turns in an appalling interview after the incident ("there are some real power issues within Wilco" he puffs like some politically correct academic), the film isn't content to let him make a fool of himself, but rather goes to each member of the band and invites them to insult their departed bandmate on screen. When manager Margherita smugly asserts that Bennett had worn out his welcome with Wilco your skin crawls: it's like Fredo has been sent out on the boat at the end of The Godfather, Part 2 to meet his untimely fate.
The filmmakers all in all seem a wholly unreliable judge of character. Rolling Stone editor David Fricke is treated as an oracle of wisdom, but comes off as the kind of phony that rock n' roll used to be about mocking, not worshipping. I watch this parade of inauthentic politicians rolling across the screen and remember the iconoclastic fire of Bob Dylan in "Don't Look Back", and it's hard to feel anything except depressed by the state of American music in 2002.
All in all this is a movie to see if you love rock music, both because Wilco *matters*, and because it is a grim portrait of the rot at the heart of the American music industry: a rot that isn't just in the office towers of the record labels, as this movie would have you believe, but is much, much closer to home, where the damage it does is more subtle, but more irreparable. Maybe it isn't Warner Brothers fault. Maybe Wilco should heed the words: Doctor, heal thyself.
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