Wilco Documentary Captures Band’s Crash, Burn, Return

Director Sam Jones inadvertantly films band during most dramatic point in its career.

Sam Jones loved Wilco so much he thought it would be cool to make a
documentary about the band.

Luckily for him, Wilco weren’t deterred by the fact that the fashion
photographer had never made a movie before. And Jones wasn’t deterred when, the
day he showed up to start filming “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” in
January of 2001, longtime drummer Ken Coomer split.

Not long after that, leader Jeff Tweedy’s musical right-hand man,
multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, followed suit. And, around the time Jones
was beginning to feel like he might have something special on film, the
experimental Chicago rockers were dropped by their label,
Reprise Records, and their recently completed album, Yankee Hotel
Foxtrot,
looked like it might not come out for a long, long time.

With nearly $120,000 of his own money sunk into the movie (named after the
lead track on the new album), Jones should have been ready to hit the panic
button.

“I was told about Ken six hours before I showed up for the first day of
filming,” said Jones, 36, whose photos have appeared in Vanity Fair,
Rolling Stone and Esquire. “And when they were dropped, I knew
before everyone else in the band except Jeff. Suddenly, it became a
big risk [financially] because when the label rejected the record it
looked like there might not even be a resolution to the movie. A lot of times
I would just wonder, ‘Wow, what have I gotten myself into?’ ”

Instead of an intimate portrait of a band whose leader he considers the most
important songwriter of his generation, Jones’ arty little black-and-white
documentary was starting to feel like a Hollywood blockbuster, full of
intrigue, backstabbing and relationship meltdowns.

The initially self-funded project Jones had envisioned as a breezy six-month
shoot dragged on for a year and a half as Wilco underwent the most jarring,
difficult period of their creative existence. Even though the resulting movie — which intersperses live and studio footage with interviews and
peeks at the band’s creative process — follows the standard Hollywood three-act arc, it’s hardly formulaic.

“I think of Jeff as one of those songwriters who will be around for 50
years,” Jones said. “I thought they were a pretty sure bet as far as a band
that matters and who make timeless music, but weren’t too big in the sense
that you couldn’t get close to them and they were under the radar of the
general public.”

Once he convinced the band that he wasn’t just a crazed fan with a DV camera,
Jones began shooting what would balloon into 86 hours of footage — eventually
pared down to the 92-minute film. “I think Jeff thought it would be an
interesting experiment and he wondered how it would add another element to
the mix,” Jones said. By bringing his cameras just inches from Tweedy’s face from
practically the first minutes of shooting, Jones helped defuse the
awkwardness of constantly being followed by a film crew, achieving what
Tweedy had set out to do: making the cameras a part of the recording
process.

Like D. A. Pennebaker’s pioneering 1965 portrait of Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look
Back,” Jones’ film is more than a profile of an artist at a crucial period in
their career.

In Act 1, you meet the players: Tweedy, Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, new
drummer Glenn Kotche and manager Tony Margherita. Jones captures the
excitement, energy and creative spark of a band that’s about to record a
make-or-break record that the group is already feeling very good about.

Act 2 is the real tearjerker. With the band’s performances and live sets
serving as segues, Jones’ cameras catch the ball of twine unwinding. A
twitchy Bennett tries to understand what effect Tweedy is going for in the
intro to the single “Heavy Metal Drummer,” but somewhere along the way
there is a serious communication breakdown from which the former
collaborators never recover.

Jones’ cameras are there, but the conversation becomes obscured by music as
the pair enters into an awkward argument across the room. Rather than zoom in
and exploit this uncomfortable moment, Jones chose to hang back and the
inability to hear their words makes the scene even more powerful.

“I just chalked it up to long hours in the studio with a bunch of songs they
had to figure out,” Jones said. “I didn’t see it as any deal-breaker, just a
weird little argument. But it was not typical as far as what they’d shown
me.” The fight, which Jones said was one of the only arguments he saw the
band have all year, ends with Tweedy rushing to the rest room to vomit after
he develops a migraine.

The sight of the conflicted rock star wiping off the toilet seat and
countertop of a public bathroom after, literally, spilling his guts, teaches
you more about this sensitive, emotional artist than any amount of talking
heads or live footage ever could, Jones said.

“He takes things to heart and feels them harder than most people,” Jones said
of Tweedy. In another example of that fragility, Tweedy is remarkably unguarded when he slumps on his hotel bed and admits that, more than anything, it
“hurt my feelings,” when Reprise said they didn’t like his record. Jones also
happened to be around when Margherita got the call from Reprise asking Wilco to either re-record the album or consider themselves dropped.

Like any good Hollywood blockbuster, this beautifully shot film, which opens
in New York on July 26 and across the country in mid-August, has a happy
ending.

Act 3 ends with the story most Wilco fans are familiar with at this
point: Multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach joins the band, they get their album
from Reprise and sign to another Warner Bros. subsidiary, Nonesuch … for
three times the cash. Warner Bros. ends up paying for an album they didn’t
want two times and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot debuts at #13 and is the
quickest seller of Wilco’s career.

“I tried to put the interviews in chronological order because so many were
pertinent to what was going on at the time and the person speaking didn’t
have knowledge of the future,” Jones said. It’s that roller coaster of
emotions — from Margherita and Bennett’s initial optimism about Reprise
giving the album a big push to Tweedy’s quiet dejection when the band gets
dropped — that gives the movie an emotional heft to match Tweedy’s
musical vision.

“The time I picked turned out to be the end of Wilco and the beginning of a
new one,” Jones said proudly.

Often guilty, never convicted. Serving 15 years to life at MTV News.