WILCO: I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART a film by SAM JONES (Rhythmethod DVD, 2004)

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Wilco: War on War (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
WILCO: I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART a film by SAM JONES (Rhythmethod DVD, 2004)

Recently an interesting film turned up on TV, but not interesting in a good way. It was Catch Us If You Can, the mid-1960s vehicle for the Dave Clark Five, a pop group briefly touted to challenge the Beatles' supremacy.

This was the DC5's A Hard Day's Night. But it wasn't. Where the Beatles' flick had a snappy script and knowing wit, superb cinematography and genre-defining editing, Catch Us If You Can was Carry On Pop Group, full of merry japes and comic antics and proving centrepiece Dave came from the Pinocchio school of acting.

Many 60s groups made a movie but all paled beside A Hard Day's Night which captured the excitement of Beatlemania and was at one level a mock documentary (or, if you will, mockumentary). The Beatles' career was bookended by two remarkable films: A Hard Day's Night and Let It Be, which showed them falling apart and bickering in the studio.

Unlike pop movies, good rock documentaries abound: Dont Look Back (the young Dylan), Gimme Shelter (the mid-period Stones), This is Spinal Tap (every metal band) and The Last Waltz (the Band's farewell). Add to that list I Am Trying to Break Your Heart by first-time director Sam Jones.

But where the subjects of those others were Already Famous People, this is about a band which is still, despite critical acclaim, existing just above cult status. It is Wilco led by Jeff Tweedy whose Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was one of last year's best albums.

When Jones started filming in 2000, Wilco had done three fine albums (and two with Billy Bragg using previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics) and all the signs pointed to impending greatness. But, in the words of This is Spinal Tap director Marti DeBerg, he got more. Much more.

Early in this increasingly tense and fractious black'n'white rockumentary their manager says the band could make a "masterful, dense artistic statement, or it could bomb". The humour of that is undercut later when he says he hopes it will be a big priority for their record company Warners. You can almost hear the beating of vultures' wings.

Things open optimistically enough (Tweedy showing an unflatteringly large belly in a rare flash of humour) and the band settle in at their Chicago rehearsal loft to make what sounds like will be their Revolver.

Tweedy and guitarist/keyboard player Jay Bennett know expectations are high. Soon the creative tension gets flinty and in the studio Bennett, who seems to be more hands-on in the production, proves an irritating pedant and general pain in the neck. It's like the McCartney/Harrison stand-off in Let It Be, but more penetrating.

At one point Tweedy says to Bennett: "The two guitar thing might be ... obsolete." Bennett: "I'm not sure what that means, but ... "

These are eerie portends, but mostly the film is about music-making and all that accompanies it. We see Tweedy backstage at a solo show with record store owners at an uncomfortable meet'n'greet where he wants the ground to swallow him, and there's a hilarious "interview" with a "Latino" journalist.

Elsewhere the band run through songs, inventively reconfigure them, disagree over production matters ("It's a $150-an-hour argument," observes Bennett), play live and prove a superb power-pop band.

They deliver Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but Warners wants changes. There are arguments, Wilco end up with a great album but no label. Then Bennett is ousted.

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is more than a doco about a band making an album. It has a subtext of what is wrong with a music industry fed on instant successes and subject to accountants' expectations, reveals the tetchy and divisive process of collective creativity, shows the power of performance on an audience, and has exceptional music throughout, some of it almost thrown away in the margins. It also comes with a wonderful, vindicating punchline.

This lovingly assembled DVD package has a second 70-minute disc with over a dozen other songs in performance, more from that "Latino journalist", home footage, and a doco about the making of the film. The 40-page booklet has essays by Rolling Stone's David Fricke and Jones that are excellent added value.

The film is often painful to watch for its eavesdropping moments, but also liberating when studio tensions are forgotten as they get on stage and play music they were born to make.

Catch it if you can.

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