I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco September 22, 2018
WITH PARTICIPATION FROM
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
hen Sam Jones, a Los Angeles director and photographer, was brought in to make a documentary about the alt-country rock band Wilco in early 2001, there was little that could have prepared him for the Behind the Music (1997-present)-style melodrama he was about to walk into. At the time, the band was in the midst of recording their fourth studio album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Conditions weren’t exactly ideal for a filmmaker, though: The day
before Jones and his camera crew came to the famed Wilco loft, wherein the group wrote and recorded music, the act’s drummer, Ken Coomer, had been fired, and replaced by the Jim O’Rourke-affiliated Glenn Kotche. Said Jones later, “I look around and you could feel this air of depression hanging over the place. And I’m thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’”
The making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is almost more notorious than the album itself. As Wilco’s manager, Tony Margherita, recapitulated in Greg Kot’s 2004 band biography Learning How to Die, production came with two major departures — Coomer and, later, the multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett — recording difficulties, strained reception from the label, and then a drop from the label. “It was a traumatic year,” he’d observe.
Now, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has come to be a symbol of survival — a testament of commitment, and how dedication to one’s art can persist in even the most taxing of times. The Jones documentary, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco, which premiered shortly after the LP was released, in April, 2002, seeks to capture the friction, and the eventual victory.
But it is not as comprehensive, or impartial, as it could be. It is unreasonable to expect that a small-budgeted, behind-the-scenes documentary will be able to intricately capture both recording-studio dramas and interpersonal relationships within the scope of 92 minutes. But Jones, who had made a name for himself as a magazine photographer, either ignores or manipulates pivotal details.
The aftereffects of Coomer’s firing are unexplored, even though following LP-related writings advert to a period of adjustment and drawn-out, unspoken regret. While Bennett was inarguably increasingly difficult to work with — he was initially given mixing responsibilities, which inflamed his ego — he is unfairly treated as a villain, in opposition to the hero that is the frontman Jeff Tweedy. Jones actualizes his own version of a narrative, and favors unnecessarily extended interspersings of live performances over emotional exploration. Reality was knottier than the film lets on.
Movies like I Am Trying to Break Your Heart are difficult to exactly deplore, though. Because we are provided a no-frills, black-and-white look inside a rock-’n’-roll story that would only otherwise be fabled in profiles and interviews, it is natural to want to savor the fact that we have been given an opportunity to gawk at these mythic, private moments. That the documentary exists at all, as it goes with similar odysseys, like the Rolling Stones-centric Gimme Shelter (1970) or the Madonna-focal Truth or Dare (1991), is a thrill. Just don’t be contingent on total candor. B-