For the second installment of Pop City Presents at Row House Cinema, we are showing
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: a Film About Wilco and pairing the music documentary with a handful of Chicago beers to honor the band's Windy City home. The beers will be featured during our sponsored showing at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4. The showing coincides with documentary film week at Row House Cinema where four Lawrenceville-based businesses selected films that reflect their work: 720 Music, Clothing and Cafe -
Nas: Time is Illmatic; Bike PGH -
Urbanized; Tree Pittsburgh -
Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai; and Espresso a Mano and Commonplace Coffee co. -
A Film About Coffee. For more information about the films and show times, visit www.rowhousecinema.com.
Without starting too many arguments, let's just say there are three types of music documentaries. There are the tried-and-true concert films, like Scorsese's The Last Waltz
or the LCD Soundsystem tribute Shut Up and Play the Hits
. There are the revered retrospectives about artists/bands/scenes/eras, like the almost unbearably sad Big Star tome Nothing Can Hurt Me
or the white-hot punk history American Hardcore
. And then there are those films that, somehow, manage to capture a moment frozen in time; sepia-toned, maybe, but still brimming with the unpredictable, glorious chaos of life. Those can be trickier to suss out.
The best two examples I can think of start with the standard concert film template, but end up dealing with, respectively, the birth and the death of the 1960s. Legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker made Don’t Look Back
about Bob Dylan’s 1965 European tour, which expertly captured the enigmatic messiness of the emerging counterculture by focusing on its most enigmatically messy musical icon. And then there's the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter
in 1970, which chronicled The Rolling Stones 1969 U.S. tour and culminated with the disastrous Altamont Free Concert, catching on film the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hell’s Angels security team.
Sam Jones’ extraordinary black-and-white 2002 documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: a Film About Wilco
carries in it the verite human drama of both Don’t Look Back
and Gimme Shelter,
but trades in the huge societal upheaval of the 1960s for the quiet cultural shifts occurring at the turn of the millennium . Jones chose to follow the Chicago alt-country rockers Wilco as they wrote, rehearsed and recorded their fourth studio release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,
a record that would subsequently rise in stature to become one of the seminal rock albums of the past 20 years. The film is set against the digital music revolution of the early aughts, and captures the music industry at a time when the bottom has dropped out of the old business model and the big labels are scrambling for cover. What Jones didn’t anticipate, besides YHF’s eventual massive critical and commercial success, was that he was going to document Wilco at a significant creative and professional crossroads, as internal tensions spur infighting, existential and physical exhaustion, and a broken relationship with their own unforgiving record company.
Lead singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy is an incredible subject; he’s the calm, affable, yet damaged musical genius trying to hold everything together. He wants to push his band into new sonic directions, experimenting with electronic textures and looser song structures, but frequently engages in battles with long time collaborator Jay Bennett over the group’s creative vision. He wants to believe his label Warner Bros./Reprise will support the record they paid him and his bandmates to make autonomously, but soon finds out creative independence has its financial limits. He wants to support his young family, but realizes that the piece of the pie for a moderately well-known indie rock band like Wilco has just shrunk even more. Through out the film, we witness Tweedy walking through this minezfield to create and share his art with the world, a journey occasionally punctuated by his stress-induced migraines that send him running to vomit in record studio bathrooms.
But for all that drama, the film doesn’t play out as a series of rock cliche plot developments rising to a climax; Jones did such an incredible job dissolving into the background over months and months of filming that viewers become slowly immersed in the ebbs and flows of a band that’s desperately trying to carve out their own corner of the world. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
isn’t rock 'n' roll myth making, it’s a quiet testament to the human toll the creation of art can carry with it.
For a full list of the films showing at Row House Cinema for documentary film week, visit their website.