[box cover]

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

Rock and roll is dead. If not, it's hiding in a bunker somewhere. You can find it perhaps, if you look for it. But odds are you'll come across something else in the meantime, like the many tedious, dull, carefully crafted pop-music tarts that smother the airwaves and fill CD merchants' bins on a weekly basis. Blame the record companies if you like — over the past two decades, the majority of independent labels have been bought up by a handful of corporations, and acts that can't sign with one of the multinational powerhouses won't be getting limo service anytime soon. Let's blame the radio industry while we're at it, since the majority of radio stations today also are owned by a handful of corporations. If you don't fit into one of the airplay formats, you don't get played. To be certain, you can still form a band, because all that takes is time, talent, and equipment. You can tour, you can build a following over time, you can even self-produce your own CDs. But none of that means you will shatter the glass ceiling of the music industry; most so-called "alternative" acts nowadays even seem a bit manufactured and carefully positioned to fill a niche. There must be a lot of rock-and-roll bands today who wish they could have come along 20 years earlier, back when some record company execs actually enjoyed music, and album-oriented FM radio gave new records a fighting chance. As the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart reveals, one such band is the Chicago-based Wilco. Founded in 1994 by singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy (who previously earned attention with the group Uncle Tupelo), the band found early success and critical acclaim with their country/roots-rock sensibilities, starting with their 1995 album A.M.. However, later releases such as Being There and Summer Teeth revealed a group unwilling to be confined by a musical genre, and instead determined to take their sound in a variety directions. The critics loved it, and Wilco retained a loyal fan-base — but record sales never were up to label Warner's expectations. Thus, when it came time to record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2001, Wilco was given a potential kiss of death: Considered ready to "take it to another level," they were given $85,000 by Warner subsidiary Reprise Records to produce their own record, as they wanted it, in their Chicago loft. Over a stretch of several months, new songs were written, recorded, mixed, and finally sent to corporate HQ, where they were met with stony silence. It was when Reprise asked for some of the material to be remixed (presumably to make it more "radio-friendly") that Jeff Tweedy refused. It was only a matter of time before the band was dropped; they had the tapes to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but nowhere to take them. In the meantime, friction between Tweedy and guitarist Jay Bennett had reached a boiling point — thanks to "creative differences," Wilco suddenly found themselves without a label, a release date, and a lead guitarist.

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I Am Trying To Break Your Heart was directed by photographer Sam Jones, who makes his documentary debut with this feature. And while it's a film from a first-time director about a band that's never earned (or sought) a great deal of publicity, it easily ranks as one of the most engaging rock-and-roll films in existence. Shot on black-and-white stock with verité aesthetics, Jones delivers one of the most crucial elements of documentaries — he doesn't present the band to us as much as he simply lets us eavesdrop. And as with The Beatles' Let It Be, we get to see the band engaged not just in the creative process, but also in the recording process — the minute details that surround getting a song on tape, and the passive bickering that can erupt over the smallest debates with the mix. We also witness some of the fallout from the split with Reprise Records, as band manager Tony Margherita has a tense cell-phone exchange with a corporate exec, and Jeff Tweedy later tries to explain what to him is simply inexplicable. The departure of Jay Bennett from the band comes as some surprise, although the seeds of discontent were notable just prior. In retrospect, it's unfortunate that we do not get to see Tweedy actually sitting down Bennett and (reportedly) saying "I don't think I can make music with you anymore," but director Jones notes in a DVD supplement that his unit was not in Chicago that week (one also can surmise that such was the very reason that particular week was chosen by the band to initiate the split). And of course, no rock-doc would be worth anything without the music — the film is filled with Wilco's music, ranging from studio tracks to rehearsals to live performances to a solo concert by Tweedy. The songs have a great deal of range, from heartfelt acoustic numbers to full-volume rockers, all with a traditional rock-and-roll flavor. It's very easy music to enjoy, and it's also easy to realize that we don't hear this sort of traditional up-tempo rock on the radio as much as we used to. Plexifim's two-disc DVD release of I Am Trying To Break Your Heart offers the feature film on Disc One in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of the black-and-white print, with excellent audio in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Extras include a commentary with director Jones and band members, as well as the theatrical trailer. Disc Two has even more for Wilco fans, with nearly an hour of live performances and outtakes, two acoustic performances from Jeff Tweedy on his solo tour, and the brief behind-the-scenes featurette "I Am Trying to Make a Film" with comments from Jones and others. Included in the clear dual-DVD keep-case is a 40-page booklet with liner notes by Rolling Stone's David Fricke.
—JJB



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