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Film Review: "I am Trying to Break Your Heart"

I am Trying to Break Your Heart
Director: Sam Jones
Playing at: Arlington Regent Theatre

The concept of a film about a band is not new. Many bands have released videos or have been considered worthy subjects by filmmakers.

Music is an important part of our culture, and its effect on social movements has been captured time and again in films like the Woodstock concert film and “Gimme Shelter,” which documents the Rolling Stones’ fateful concert at Altamount.

A new film entitled “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” tells the modern day story of the band Wilco and shines a light on the current state of the music industry today. The film is a compelling look at the creative process and technical procedures that produce an album. Sadly, it is also a story of greed and broken relationships.

There has always existed a conflict between musicians and the record labels. It’s a classic battle of those who create something worth selling and those with the business skill to exploit it. The Napster court battles and Prince symbol controversy are shining examples from recent years. The issues come to light in an unexpected way in “I am Trying to Break Your Heart,” as things suddenly turn sour for the band after recording what would become their most successful album.

Originally intended as a documentary about the recording of their “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album released earlier this year, the film became an allegory of the modern recording industry, as the group runs into trouble with their label and struggles to keep their creative integrity intact.

The film begins in the recording studio. Working in their rehearsal space rather than a commercial facility, they are comfortable and productive and work well together to write and perform the music. The trouble begins in production when members began to argue and the harmony they shared is lost. Then, when word comes from their record label that the album is unacceptable, the members find themselves struggling to find a solution that they can all live with. Eventually they switch labels and the album is a success but the effort costs them one of their founding members and broke their spirits.

The album itself is by far the band’s most successful to date. Wilco is generally categorized as “alt-country” or “rock/folk” for their simple instrumentation and down to earth lyrics. By contrast, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is more experimental and defies classification through innovative use of conventional instruments.

It is a riveting work that combines the band’s simplistic imagery and unconventional catchiness with a maturity and tenderness that their previous albums lacked. The lyrics are full of heartache, sadness and remorse that uncannily anticipate the strife that accompanied the album’s submission to their record label. When released, the album and its travails received press coverage and critical acclaim, making it more popular than any of their previous efforts.

The film predominately follows lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy as he deals with the everyday life of a musician. He and his band mates typify the scruffy musician in their thrift store wardrobes, shaggy hair and scraggly beards. At times they seem like caricatures of themselves in the way they present themselves and try to act comfortable in front of the camera.

Sharply contrasted against their lackadaisical manners are the studio executives who appear for interviews to present their side of the story. Neatly dressed and groomed, they are eager to talk. As if working from a script, they use the kind of corporate catchphrases that in a fictional film are used to label a character a soulless killjoy. The antagonism between that the two stereotypes is as demonstrative of the conflict as any staged version could be.

The film avoids getting bogged down in the drama of the dispute through occasional footage of the band in concert and in the studio. They play without concern for their troubles and are much more relaxed on stage, instruments in hand. These scenes serve to remind the viewer that music by itself is pure and carefree and, when done right, can almost make you forget about the troubles in your life.

Though it focuses on one particular band, the film is a story about the process that gets the music you love from the musician’s instruments to your stereo. Since many other artists and musicians commonly encounter the trouble Wilco did, the movie is relevant to people who may have never heard them play. Indeed, their relative anonymity serves the film well, as they represent any of the thousands of bands fighting with their label for the right to release their music as they recorded it. Director Sam Jones got more than he expected and many viewers will as well.

September 23, 2002
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