Movie review, 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart'

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"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is documentary filmmaking from the School of Being in the Right Place at the Right Time.

This is a rare gem tripped over while making a run-of-the-mill rockumentary about a band's new album.

When the label rejects that album, namely Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," the band implodes and the film turns into a treatise on what's wrong with the music industry.

Freshman filmmaker Sam Jones, best known for his still images in glossy magazines such as Rolling Stone and Esquire, sifted through 86 hours of footage to mine this well-paced black-and-white documentary. The result: an honest, bare-bones portrayal of Chicago's Wilco during its most volatile period, both creatively and personally.

The band's sixth album (if you count their two-record collaboration with Billy Bragg), Wilco's self-produced "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," was to be the record to bring the band "to another level," as the band's manager Tony Margherita puts it.

Although adored by critics (the Tribune's Greg Kot and Rolling Stone's David Fricke come to the band's defense in the film) and alt-country fans, Wilco never attracted the mainstream success enjoyed by stadium acts and expected by record labels.

So, indulging in the knob-twisting production values Radiohead made trendy, the band deconstructs frontman Jeff Tweedy's country-inspired tunes in the studio, setting them against ambient and instrumental soundscapes.

"There's no reason at all not to destroy (the album)," Tweedy says on screen. "We made it; it's ours to destroy -- but in a creative and liberating way."

Jones captures intimate moments of Tweedy and chief collaborator Jay Bennett bickering over the mixing of "Heavy Metal Drummer" - a scene oddly reminiscent of George Harrison and Paul McCartney's tiff in "Let It Be." Jones then trails Tweedy to the studio restroom, where the songwriter suffers through migraine-induced nausea, a chronic ailment Tweedy has dealt with since childhood.

It's odd, however, that we never really get close to Tweedy, the documentary's enigmatic center. Within the first few minutes of film, we learn that he's certainly not vain - he draws a face on his potbelly and does a "Welcome to our movie" bit - and possesses a wry sense of humor (look for his mock backstage interview during a solo tour). But we don't find out that he has a wife and kids until the film's last quarter.

Insights into Tweedy's home life or even a private songwriting session may have provided a more complete character sketch, but the central conflict Jones focuses on is between Tweedy and Reprise, the band's disgruntled label. In between practice sessions and performances, Jones weaves in the fallout from Reprise, a record company in flux, where the new chief doesn't comprehend Wilco's highbrow experiment and doesn't believe it's marketable.

Jones can't be everywhere at once, however. Although he does get manager Margherita's cell phone spat with Reprise in which the band and label part ways, the camera isn't present for initial reactions to the rejection. Instead, we get a hotel interview with Tweedy, who's had time to process and reconcile having his work discarded.

The camera documents a cherub-faced Tweedy's weight loss over the course of label wars and band firings, and an impassioned performance during which he screams "Thank you for nothing at all" during a performance of "Misunderstood." The band members themselves don't come off as pretentious as Radiohead did in "Meeting People is Easy," nor do they embarrass themselves with "If you told the truth, you'd go out of business" rants like the one Bob Dylan lobbed at the press in "Don't Look Back."

Wilco records, sputters, performs and triumphs, and Jones catches it all through stark black and white, with only the occasional self conscious camera move (see the MTV-inspired twirl while the band practices).

Named for the first track of the album, "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" doesn't have to exert much effort to do just that. In an industry that favors flash over substance, youth over experienced craftsmanship, Jones exposes the diseased core of corporate rock and its ramifications on any artist smaller than Britney Spears.

3 stars (out of 4)
"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart"
Directed and photographed by Sam Jones; edited by Erin Nordstrom; produced by Peter Abraham and Sam Jones. A Cowboy Pictures release; opens Friday, Aug. 2. Running time: 1:32. No MPAA rating.

Robert K. Elder is a Chicago Tribune Staff Writer.

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