The trials that plagued the release of Wilco's acclaimed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot should be familiar to anyone who has picked up a magazine in the past year; the troubles that went along with documenting this ordeal may be somewhat less apparent. Rookie filmmaker Sam Jones has handled setbacks admirably, and the proof, \I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,"" opens tonight in Madison at the Orpheum Theatre, 216 State St.
Jones could have had no conception of the drama he would encounter when he set out to film the creation of Wilco's fourth album'what might have been a linear progression was thrown wildly off course by Reprise Records' decision to drop Wilco and a terminal falling out between singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett. Despite this, ""I Am Trying"" plays smoothly and logically, from the opening scene of Tweedy's nicotine-fueled commute to rehearsal to the final meeting with record execs at the new label. Jones manages to stay sufficiently in the woodwork, allowing Wilco to go about their composing, arguing and chainsmoking unmolested'which lets everyone involved come off either as clever or as cloying as they ostensibly would be in real life.
Tweedy, a man who always seems to be on the brink of emotional collapse in his songs, is a bit cheerier on the big screen. Whether he's making a cigarette-smoking puppet out of his navel or politely running away from clueless middle-aged fanboys, he's an excellent straight man in bizarre circumstances. ""I Am Trying"" is unapologetically sympathetic to him at all times, but it's a safe bet that most Wilco fans are, too and would hardly tolerate a film that wasn't. Jones' movie is strong enough to interest anyone who cares about music or filmmaking, but it's the Wilco diehards who will be lining up hours ahead of time, anxious to see what makes Tweedy's voice crack just so.
Shot in a beautifully grainy black and white, ""I Am Trying"" is destined to be forever compared to D.H. Pennebaker's seminal Bob Dylan travelogue, ""Don't Look Back."" Jones keeps the movie from being a concert film by borrowing a number of Pennebaker's tricks, including spreading musical performances throughout a number of scenes, as varied as a band field trip to Lake Michigan to a shot of Tweedy vomiting from migraine-induced stress.
This performance footage lags a bit toward the end, where it's heavy on live sets of Being There-era songs, which just can't compare to the more exciting early rehearsals for YHF. That said, there are enough alternate takes and unreleased songs to justify a quality soundtrack album or, at least, a DVD release and a good set of headphones.
Those familiar with YHF are likely to get a lot more out of ""I Am Trying"" than anyone else'the film is a much better window into a band than it is a tale of artistic integrity versus corporate ineptitude. Of course, portraying Wilco was what Jones meant to accomplish. He has, masterfully, as ""I Am Trying"" gives a deservedly excellent treatment to a much-loved American band.