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[whitespace] Wilco Wilco's label woes are well documented on 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.'


Film Threat

Wilco's new documentary is a big fat drag

By Gina Arnold

MOVIES ABOUT rock & roll are almost always failures. Somehow, the genre doesn't translate into another medium. The worst type of rock movie is the fictional narrative, with a fake band playing bad songs. A close second is the acted-out biography. A more successful type of rock movie is arty and reverent--and heavy on the live shots--like Dylan's Don't Look Back and Radiohead's Meeting People Is Easy. The latest entrant in this category, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, does a disservice to the band it profiles, Wilco. Indeed, I dare anyone to see it and walk out wanting to hear more of Wilco--anyone, that is, who is not already madly in love with the band.

This is not to say that Wilco is a bad band, or that the album which the movie documents, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, is a bad album. On the contrary. But for reasons of its own, I Am Trying to Break Your heart tries to make the case that YHF is the best album ever made. It fails to convince viewers of anything, however, except the undoubted fact that making records is an extremely tedious process. Wilco songs like "Jesus, Etc." and "Heavy Metal Drummer" are gorgeous and well crafted. Singer Jeff Tweedy is a thoughtful, if sullen, songwriter, and the band itself is gravely competent.

But filmmaker Sam Jones has a higher purpose in elevating Wilco's status. While he was shooting the film, the record was rejected by its label, Reprise. Its eventual triumphant release on another label (Nonesuch) becomes the arc of his narrative here. And so, the more people he can get to say that the record is "an American classic" and that Wilco is "America's most innovative band," the more stupid poor Reprise looks for dropping them.

Of course, the band shouldn't have been dropped for making the record they wanted to make, but this film comes off as bitter and defensive in the extreme, and therein lies the problem with rock documentaries. Despite being the true story of a good band, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart merely succeeds in showing the worst aspects of musicians and of making music. The two clearest points that the film makes are just how arduous making an album is and--alas--just what a white male genre this type of music is. There are only two shots of women in the entire film: one of some girls asking Tweedy to sign their tits, and the other of his wife smelling his son's diaper. It's depressing.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is also the polar opposite of another new rock movie, which is the fictionalized story of a bad band. 24 Hour Party People perfectly captures what is fun and exhilarating about live rock music. And this is particularly ironic because, where I Am Trying to Break Your Heart tries to press the point that record companies are evil, stupid and heartless spendthrifts, 24 Hour Party People utterly refutes that message--and it does so without denying any of those charges.

24 Hour Party People is the story of one label in particular, Factory Records, its CEO, Tony Wilson, and the way its bands (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays) shaped and defined a decade's worth of music in Manchester, England. The film makes no bones about the fact that Factory Records squandered its money on drugs and goofiness, or that Wilson, who signed his friends, really didn't have a good ear.

Wilson spends most of the movie insisting that Shaun Ryder, the Happy Mondays' prize idiot of a singer, "is like W.B. Yeats." But for all his silliness and self-corruption, in the end Wilson comes off a lot better than Wilco does, because 24 Hour Party People is about the fans--about being a fan--whereas I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is about musicians who bear a grudge. Wilco makes indie rock--beautifully written indie rock--look like a big fat drag, but you can see 24 Party People, and even if you thought that Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and, particularly, the Happy Mondays were crap, you'd still understand why people liked them and what they did for music.


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From the September 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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